2011 Season Preview: Rafael Soriano

Shifting against Adrian
Joba's oblique strain "a little worse than expected"
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

I think it’s fair to say that the three-year, $35M contract the Yankees gave Rafael Soriano was the most controversial signing of this past offseason. Hal Steinbrenner and his upper upper upper management buddies over-ruled Brian Cashman because they weren’t in love with the idea of using David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain as Mariano Rivera‘s primary setup men in 2010, plus the team had some of the money earmarked for Cliff Lee burning a whole in their pocket. The stars aligned just right for Soriano and Scott Boras.

Cashman came out and said he didn’t think forfeiting a first round pick and spending that kind of money on a relief pitcher was the best way to use resources (at Soriano’s introductory press conference no less), and he’s right. Multi-year free agent contracts for relievers almost never work out, with the only real exception in recent years being Rivera. For the one they call MFIKY to earn his money, he’ll have to not just repeat last year’s effort, but improve upon it.

Best Case

Relief pitchers can only be so valuable in the real world, even the great Rivera. The last two years of Soriano’s career are about as good as it gets for relievers; he’s racked up 3.6 fWAR total (1.6 in 2010, 2.0 in 2009), good for eighth best among all relief pitchers. He’s just a win-and-a-half away from the reliever fWAR leader (Brian Wilson), but he’s also just half-a-win better than guys like Rafael Betancourt and Darren Oliver. I don’t love WAR for pitchers, so if we use FIP, Soriano ranks tenth among all relievers at 2.66 over the last two seasons.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Soriano has nasty stuff, regularly using three pitches to attack hitters. His bread-and-butter is a 92-95 mph fastball and low-80’s slider combo, pitches that rated as nine and 7.4 runs better than average last year. A pitcher is usually lucky to have one offering that good, Soriano’s one of the few with two. His third pitch is a hard cutter that he throws mostly to left-handers, helping him solve those guys last season after a few years without answers. Hitters have swung and missed at Soriano’s pitches more than 12% of the time in his career, and missing bats is the name of the game when it comes to late-inning relief work.

In a best case scenario, you’re looking at Soriano returning to his 2009 form, when he had a worse ERA than he did in 2009 (2.97 to 1.73) but better peripherals (2.54 FIP, 2.99 xFIP vs. 2.81 and 3.81). A 2.50 FIP reliever throwing 70 innings of higher leveraged work (LI of around 1.60-1.70) is a two-and-a-half win player, and Soriano is capable of that if some things break his way. A three win season as a setup man is very hard to do, but not impossible.

Worst Case

Unfortunately, we’ve lived this nightmare before and know just how ugly multi-year contracts for relievers can get. There’s Steve Karsay (four years, $22.5M), Kyle Farnsworth (three years, $17M), Paul Quantrill (two years, $6.8M), and Damaso Marte (three years, $12M), all of whom inked their deals within the last ten years and all of whom ended (or will end) their Yankee tenures on the business end of the chopping block. History is not on Soriano’s side, and there are some warning flags.

Despite the high swinging strike rate, Soriano struck out just 8.23 men per nine innings last year, down nearly four full strikeouts from 2009 and about a K-and-a-half from his career average. Yes, there’s the NL-to-AL East switch to consider, but remember, as an eighth and ninth inning guy with the Braves, Soriano wasn’t facing opposing pitchers, he was getting pinch-hitters. His fly ball rate is also extreme at 49.8% over the last two years, a rate he’s maintained throughout his career. Despite the improvement against lefties last season, yet still has a ways to go before proving that platoon split (LHB had a .313 wOBA off him prior to 2010) is a thing of the past. That .199 BABIP last year? Don’t expect that to sustain itself either.

Oh, and then there’s the injuries. Soriano has never stayed healthy for three consecutive seasons in his entire career, and he’ll be shooting for that milestone in 2011. A history of elbow trouble (two surgeries, one of which was Tommy John) and shoulder issues reside  in the cons column. The worst case scenario is pretty much Farnsworth’s tenure in pinstripes, a homer prone faux-setup man that will strike out enough guys to remain useful, but not really qualified for late-inning, leveraged work. During his two-and-a-half years in New York, Farnsy was worth just half-a-win total.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

What’s Likely To Happen

This part is very tricky, because you want to believe that Soriano is different from everyone else, that he’s not one of those flaky late-inning guys because he’s “proved himself” with the AL East winning Rays last summer. We’ve thought that before though, and I refuse to get caught in that trap again. There’s no denying that Soriano improves the team’s bullpen on paper though, there’s just no argument against that, especially when you consider the chaining effect that pushes the whiff-happy Robertson and Chamberlain into the middle innings, where oh so many games are won and lost.

Performance-wise, I don’t believe Soriano will be as good as he was last year again in 2011. The move from Tropicana Field into homer-happy Yankee Stadium will have a very real impact on his performance, and the dip in strikeouts is concerning. Ditto the super-low BABIP and historical struggles against left-handers. All told, if Soriano manages to stay healthy all year and puts up a 3.00 FIP in 70 innings, I’d take it in a heartbeat. The Yankees won 80 of 87 games when leading after seven innings last year, and three of those losses are attributed to Mo in one way or another. Soriano won’t be that big of an upgrade at the end-game, but he’s an upgrade nonetheless.

We can’t ignore the contract either. For reasons unbeknownst to us, the Yankees gave Soriano the ability to opt out of his contract after each of the first two years. He and agent Scott Boras are the ones in control here. With any luck, he’ll have a monster year and opt out in hopes of landing a huge payday as a closer somewhere. That should allow the Yankees to recoup the lost draft pick, assuming they offer him arbitration and the compensation rules aren’t changed in the upcoming Collective Bargaining agreement. Best case scenario: Soriano’s awesome in 2011 and heads elsewhere as a free agent after the season. Worst case: he gets hurt and the Yankees are stuck paying him for the next three years. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to envision this signing turning into a disaster than it is a masterstroke. It’s not fair, but Randy Levine & Co. made their own bed.

Shifting against Adrian
Joba's oblique strain "a little worse than expected"
  • Ultimate Yankee Warrior (James)

    ” The move from Tropicana Field into homer-happy Yankee Stadium will have a very real impact on his performance, and the dip in strikeouts is concerning. ”

    This is going to be the real problem, me thinks. He throws a good pitch to AGon in a one-run game and watches it boom. How will that affect him?

    As a reliever, there are only so many opportunities for him to excel. And one or two big homers are going to be daggers to the fanbase. We’ve seen it happen with Mo. But he’s Mo. When happens when it’s the new guy who is supposed to replace Mo?

    • http://youcantpredictbaseball.wordpress.com/ bexarama

      Soriano is supposed to replace Mo? That’s news to me when he’s signed for only one year beyond Mo (and that’s if he doesn’t opt-out) and is 31.

      • Ultimate Yankee Warrior (James)

        Who’s the closer is Mo gets hurt?

        • http://youcantpredictbaseball.wordpress.com/ bexarama

          Oh, that kind of replacing Mo. I thought you meant once he r – reti – retir – okay I can’t get it out, but you know what I mean. My bad.

          • Ultimate Yankee Warrior (James)

            There’s the long-term, sure. But the two are connected, no? If Mo finally shows his age, don’t you think all eyes would be on Soriano? Both because of his contract and his history?

            • Ted Nelson

              When you pitch in front of tens of thousands of people 60-70 times a year all eyes are always on you.

              • RL

                So this will be a new experience for Soriano, pitching in front of tens of thousands of fans at 60-70 games this year. In The Trop, he pitched in front of hundreds, perhaps thousands of fans most of the time!


    • Accent Shallow

      This is going to be the real problem, me thinks. He throws a good pitch to AGon in a one-run game and watches it boom. How will that affect him?

      This tired old chestnut again.

      “He’s never faced NY pressure! How will he handle it!”

      Spare us.

      • Ultimate Yankee Warrior (James)

        I could care less. I’m talking about perceptions here. If he blows a few big games, and the percentages say he will and painfully, you don’t think this will come up?

        • Ted Nelson

          I think you are seriously overstating the impact the media has on players.

    • Ted Nelson

      “He throws a good pitch to AGon in a one-run game and watches it boom. How will that affect him?”

      How has it affected him in the past? He’s been a top reliever for years and was a closer in the AL East just last season. Questioning his mental toughness now, at 31 years old, is pretty odd.

      • Ultimate Yankee Warrior (James)

        Again, I don’t really care one way or another. I thought it was a terribly signing, but that’s past. All I know is this will be a topic of discussion the first time he gives up a game changing homer. The next few times, if they happen, will only cement the perceptions. And given his tendencies and YS 2.0, this outcome is better than even money.

        • YanksFan

          Topics for the MSM & the fan base. Not in the clubhouse. Not in Sori’s head.

        • http://youcantpredictbaseball.wordpress.com/ bexarama

          And given his tendencies and YS 2.0 the fact that he’s a reliever, and relievers tend to blow games, even Mariano Rivera, this outcome is better than even money.

          I’m not really sure what you’re trying to argue here. He’ll blow a save/hold here and there? Yes, he will. And I’m sure people will panic and he’ll go out next time and dominate again.

          The guy’s been pitching for a while. He knows what he’s doing. There are enough issues with this signing without adding silliness to it.

        • Ted Nelson

          Who cares what the discussion is? Pro athletes have to deal with failure. It happens. No one is perfect. The problem with, say, Kyle Farnsworth was not that fans didn’t like him, it was that he didn’t pitch well.

    • Mike HC

      First, he is not supposed to replace Mo. He is supposed to be our second best reliever. And if it turns out he sucks, then Joba, Robertson, Feliciano etc … will pick up the slack. The Yanks have worked through our set up men blowing up before, and we can work through it again. Mo is the rock and I expect more of the same this year as well.

  • pat

    Best case scenario is he’s lights out, opts out and declines arbitration.

    • Fair Weather Freddy

      and signs with the team that has the 16th pick in the draft. The first 15 are protected

  • Big Apple

    soriano looks a lot like contreras…hoping for better results

  • bakekrukow412

    I think he’ll be like Burnett. Have a so-so first year, and a horrible second one (assuming he doesn’t opt-out). Call it a gut feeling.

    On a side note, I’m viewing RAB for the first time in Internet Explorer 9, and it looks amazing! The font/graphics are smoothed out, the whole site just looks tiddier! I highly recommend you all download it! Not to mention it is the fasted out there, better than Chrome and Firefox.

  • MikeD

    A few random thoughts, in not particular order, thrown onto the pile.

    -Although I’ve used it myself, WAR of any color is generally not viewed as all that useful when trying to determine the value a relief pitcher delivers to a team. It is accepted by many in the stats community (although certainly not all) that a top-flight reliever brings more value to a team than is reflected in his WAR #.

    -I’m not comfortable comparing Soriano to the likes of Farnsworth or Quantrill. Soriano is better and has always delivered quality when healthy. That, of course, is the real issue with Soriano. He’s not always healthy. He’s had three seasons in his career wiped out by arm issues/surgery. Taking the glass-is-half-full approach, he’s been fine the past two years and four of the last five, so maybe those issues are a thing of the past. (And, yeah, taking the glass-is-half-empty approach, he’s due for an injury!) Back to my point, Soriano is quality when he can take the mound. Farnsworth never could make that claim.

    -Like Marino, Soriano has generally produced low BABIPs, while delivering ERA’s lower than his FIPs. His career FIP is a half run higher than his career ERA, same as Mo. I do expect some regression from his 2010 season, but the BABIP and FIP numbers don’t bother me based on past history. Once again, he delivers quality when healthy, so let’s hope the health holds.

    -The value of Soriano goes beyond holds from the 8th inning on. As Mike noted, the depth means Joba and Robertson are available for the middle innings, where many games are won and lost. The lengthening of the pen with quality arms should be a positive.

    Unfortunately, the one area that I know is going to make me unhappy in 2011 is how they use Soriano. He’ll only be the 8th-inning guy. The most critical time to save a game sometimes comes in the 7th inning, and there was a time when the best relief pitcher would be called in to get that out. Nowadays the closer only pitches the 9th, and that’s not always the smartest decision. The Yankees now could have the luxury of bringing in Soriano to stop a rally in a close game in the 7th, but it’s just not going to happen. Soriano will pitch the 8th. That means Joba may actually turn out to be more valuable to the Yankees than Soriano by getting the key outs to get to Soriano.

    I don’t like giving up the draft pick and I don’t like the opt-out clauses (what they’re paying him doesn’t bother me at all), but Soriano will make the Yankees better in 2011…assuming he’s healthy enough to take the mound!

    • Mike HC

      Nice write up. Definitely agree with this.

    • Ted Nelson

      Good points. Mostly agree and was going to make some similar points re: WAR for relievers and the cascade affect of pushing Joba and Robertson down the depth chart.

      “The most critical time to save a game sometimes comes in the 7th inning, and there was a time when the best relief pitcher would be called in to get that out.”

      I don’t think they should use him only in the 8th, but you also can’t always use your best relievers to get the most important outs for a few reasons:

      1. One swing of the bat can make a comfortable 6th or 7th inning lead a close game and key situation. If your guy isn’t warmed up and someone else is, he can’t really come in the game (could stall and get a quick warm-up, but that risks injury if it’s a common practice depending on the reliever).

      2. If you do warm up your top reliever every time a game could be close with the swing of a bat or two… you’re dry humping him a whole lot when the guy in the game gets out of the threat himself. Basically you’re telling a guy to be ready whenever–and often to be ready longer–vs. just to get ready at a more defined time. This can lead to not being able to use a guy as often (since he’s exhausting more energy warming up) and injury.

      3. A close game in the 6th or 7th could still be close in the 8th or 9th… I can definitely see the argument for just giving yourself the best chance to get the outs when you need them, but I can also see the conventional wisdom of saving the closer.

      Since both Joba and Robertson are capable of having “set-up man” or “closer” type seasons themselves (and Logan and Feliciano are capable of the same against lefties) I’m not too worried about using Soriano in the 8th only.

      I would also say that what they’re paying him bothers me a lot more than the pick (which has a very low chance of ever providing as much value as Soriano is likely to in just one season and may be recouped next season… even if the CBA changes it’s probably a gradual change and not abrupt) or the opt-outs.

      • MikeD

        No real disagreement. My post was already a bit long, but to further explain, I don’t like the idea of *locking* any single pitcher into an inning. The closer situation is unique, but unfortunately the closer morphed from a guy who could be called on anytime from the 7th inning forward when the game situation turned critical, to a guy who only now comes in and pitches the 9th, and usually with no one on base. The creation of an “8th-inning-only” guy further reduces a manager’s flexibility. There will be times in 2011 when it’s clear that the best option is Soriano, yet he won’t be called in unless it’s the 8th inning.

  • Buddy

    I would love to hear an interview of Hal, Hank, Randy, whoever pushed for this deal and explain how it makes ANY sense.

    The Yankees are taking ALL the downside and NONE of the upside. Downside is 3 years of $11m and getting nothing, the upside is 1 good year and a comp pick b/w 1st & 2nd round that they would “net”)

    I can’t believe that this is what they signed up for. Makes no sense.

    I think it would have been more intelligent to have given him a 1 year $20m contract.

    • Ted Nelson

      Your understanding of the deal is flawed.

      A. If he’s injured and can’t play the insurance pays him, not the Yankees. I don’t know the details, but if they get nothing they’re not paying him. They would still have the luxury cap ramifications I’d think.

      B. If he does reach that upside and opts out after year 1 or 2… they Yankees probably “captured” a season or two of one of the top relievers in the game.

      C. The upside is also 3 or more years of a very good reliever. Mike and other writers here like to act like no relievers are ever consistent who are not named Mo, but there are plenty of guys not named Mo who were not AS GOOD but were still good relievers for a prolonged period: http://mlb.mlb.com/stats/historical/leaders.jsp?c_id=mlb&baseballScope=mlb&statType=2&sortByStat=SV&timeFrame=3&timeSubFrame=0

      So, they would probably explain those points to you and then tell you that it’s their money, they’re a private monopoly… and that’s how they felt like spending it. They might also tell you that Mariano is 41, Joba’s ERA last season was 4.4, and maybe that their scouts and coaches feel Soriano’s cutter is good enough for a permanent improvement against lefties.

      It was an overpay and a controversial move, but it makes a lot more sense than you’re portraying it to.

      • Buddy

        As a yankee fan, I’m glad its not as bad as i thought, but I didn’t hear that insurance covered any part of this deal in case of injury.

        I was under the impression that it was close to impossible to insure these contracts anymore or that the cost had risen so much which made it not worth it to the teams to insure them.

        And yes. I fully concede that its their money. I am discussing this merely in terms of that strategy towards putting the best product on the field.

        • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

          Insurance is hard to get, especially for a guy with Soriano’s injury history. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard of insurance covering the player’s full salary, usually it’s some percentage.

          • MikeD

            I think the Yankees self-insure, meaning basically if the guy gets injured they eat the contract. Not sure they do it in all cases.

    • http://youcantpredictbaseball.wordpress.com/ bexarama

      the upside is 1 good year and a comp pick b/w 1st & 2nd round that they would “net”)

      I don’t like this signing but I don’t agree. The upside is three years like 2010. It’s highly unlikely, but one good year is hardly the best upside they could get.

      • Ted Nelson

        Good point.

  • Mike HC

    I disagree that the best case is Soriano dominating, then opting out. If he is so dominant again this year, I would think the remaining two year deal with the opt out would be a very good deal for the Yanks. You get a top reliever and for only a two year risk. Not sure why you would want him to opt out and lose a top relief pitcher just to recoup a draft pick, which you can still recoup anyway a year or two down the line.

    • Ted Nelson

      This is a good point. The best case is really 3+ years of dominant relief pitching.

      There is an increased risk of suffering an injury or losing effectiveness over a 2 or 3 year deal compared to a 1, of course, and I think that’s part of what Mike and others are saying. However, they also consistently point to a fallacy that Mariano Rivera is the only reliever in the history of baseball who has stayed healthy and productive for 3 straight seasons or more. Of course this is ridiculous. There is definitely a risk of injury, but plenty of guys have 3+ good seasons after 30:

      People also play amateur doctor and assume that because Soriano has been injured in the past he’s an increased injury risk in the future. I see the logic, but I see no value in throwing around amateur opinion on the subject. Labeling guys “injury prone” is often as useful as John Kruk labeling them “not clutch.”

      Mariano is the best, but not the only guy to put together a few good seasons after 30. This, of course, does not mean Soriano will have 3 healthy/productive seasons 2011-13. It just means it’s more likely than the RAB writers make it out to be (and I know you guys hate being grouped together, but I’ve seen this repeatedly in at least 2 of your writing and have never seen any of you point to all the relievers who stayed healthy/productive after 30).

  • nsalem

    I like this acquisition. I believe the Yankee’s overpaid to get Soriano to accept a job demotion. Soriano comes to us with much better credentials than the pitchers that Mike listed and if I was to compare this deal with former acquisitions I would be thinking Tom Gordon rather than the failures over the last ten years. Gordon (except the 2004 ALCS) worked out very well and Soriano is 5 years younger than Gordon when we signed him. There is a certainly a good case to argue that Robertson and/or Joba could have handled the role Soriano will play. However at this point in time Soriano would seem a better bet and opposing teams seeing Joba and Dave in the seventh (as opposed to what we would have had out there) makes us a much stronger entity. This is a strong part of the equation. It is true that delving into the setup reliever market at this price point is an incredibly risky proposition, but considering the possible rewards
    I think that this time it was worthwhile.