When the arbitration dust settled late last week, the Yankees had reached agreements with all of their eligible players except for David Robertson. The two sides filed salary figures — Robertson filed for $3.55M while the team countered with $2.85M — before Friday’s deadline, and those numbers will be used during a potential hearing late next month. It’s important to point out that Robertson and the Yankees can agree to a new contract of any size between now and a hearing.
As we know, Hal Steinbrenner is not a fan of contract extensions. We also know the team is willing to bend the rules a bit to sign players long-term before they hit free agency. The Yankees did it with Robinson Cano prior to the 2008 season and they were willing to do it again with Russell Martin last winter. Robertson is not due to become a free agent until after the 2014 season, but he’s an exception candidate for the no-extensions rule given the impending departures of Mariano Rivera (retirement) and Joba Chamberlain (free agency) next winter.
Robertson, 27, has emerged as one of baseball’s most dominant relievers over the last two seasons. His 1.84 ERA and 2.15 FIP both rank sixth among all bullpeners since the start of 2011 (min. 50 IP) while his strikeout rates (12.79 K/9 and 34.8 K%) both rank fifth. Robertson’s also thrown a ton of important innings these last two years, as his 1.57 gmLI (leverage index when entering the game) is the 27th highest overall and the third highest among non-closing relievers (arbitrarily defined as guys with fewer than ten saves). Sure, the walk rates are high (3.82 BB/9 and 10.4 BB%), but they aren’t astronomical. Robertson makes up for it by missing bats and getting grounders (45.6%).
Unsurprisingly, the number of non-closing relievers who have signed extensions two years before free agency is very small. That has much more to do with the teams wanting to limit risk than the players not being open to it, obviously. The only guy from that group who is remotely comparable to Robertson is Glen Perkins, who inked a three-year, $10.3M extension with the Twins during Spring Training last year. The left-hander had just one year as an elite reliever under his belt (2.48 ERA and 2.41 FIP) at the time of his extension and it wasn’t even as good as Robertson has been the last two years. We’re running very short on comparables here.
We know Robertson’s camp values his second year of arbitration-eligibility at $3.55M — a $1.95M raise from last season — thanks to their filing figure. MLBTR projected a $2.8M salary for next season, which is right in line with the team’s filing figure. Maybe that means the Yankees have a good chance to win a hearing, but I don’t think that’s a safe assumption. The club has been to just two arbitration hearings this century, beating both Rivera (2000) and Chien-Ming Wang (2008). That doesn’t mean much though, I’m sure they’re eager to work out an agreement with their setup man before having to step in front of a three-person panel next month. No one likes to go through a hearing, they tend to get ugly.
The Yankees would presumably look to sign Robertson for at least three years, which would buy out his final two seasons of arbitration-eligibility and one free agent year. Tacking on a club option or three at the end would be ideal for the team but not the player. I’m just going to spitball some numbers here: they could look at something like $3M in 2013 (a bit below the midpoint of the filing figures), $4.75M in 2014, and $6.5M in 2014 with a $250k signing bonus and a $500k buyout of a fourth year club option worth say … $9M. That’s a three-year, $15M guarantee that gives Robertson a $1.75M raise annually and the team a $5M luxury tax hit. He’d hit free agency at age-31 if the option was exercised.
Contract extensions are a two-way street since each side is giving something to get something else. The player trades maximum earning potential for financial security while the team trades the risk of performance decline for cost certainty. The unique twist here is Robertson’s role. If he were to assume the closer’s role at some point this year or next, his earning potential would skyrocket because saves pay. Given Rivera’s age and the likelihood of retirement after this coming season, you don’t have to try to real hard to envision a scenario in which Robertson becomes the closer within ten months or so. His agent is surely aware of that.
The other thing we have to remember is that Robertson is a reliever, and those guys have a tendency to fall apart without warning and for no apparent reason. Just using fWAR as a quick example, the three best relievers in baseball two seasons ago were Carlos Marmol, Brian Wilson, and Heath Bell. Four seasons ago Brian Fuentes, Kerry Wood, and Brad Lidge were in the top five. It’s a volatile position and no matter how much we like Robertson and believe he’ll be different than the rest, he’s just as risky as every other reliever, especially when you factor in his less than stellar command. Given the team’s newfound dedication to staying under the luxury tax threshold, having ~$5M in payroll tied up in a risky reliever might not be the wisest thing in the world, even if they envision him as Rivera’s heir.
I don’t expect the Yankees to explore a long-term agreement with Robertson even though the two sides were unable to find common ground prior to last week’s filing deadline. Brett Gardner and Boone Logan didn’t sign until after the filing deadline last year, and there were no extension talks there as far as we know. Getting cost certainty from a reliever — especially a non-closing reliever — isn’t a huge priority for any team, so working out a multi-year contract with Robertson probably isn’t worth the hassle even though the club is likely to lose both Rivera and Joba after the upcoming season.