Oct
29

Locking up David Robertson

By
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

David Robertson has emerged as both the Yankees’ top setup man and one of the best non-closing relievers in baseball these last three years, and 12 months from now he will become a free agent. That non-closing part figures to change in 2013 with Mariano Rivera headed off to retirement. With the obvious caveat that New York could go off and sign an established closer, Robertson is the obvious candidate to take over the ninth inning.

Matt Swartz’s model projects Robertson to earn a healthy $5.5M next season, which is pretty close to top of the market dollars for a setup reliever. The pay scale for closers is considerably different though. Saves pay a ton even though they’re far from the best way to evaluate performance. Even through free agency, guys with lots of saves tend to get more than a comparable reliever who never held a ninth inning job. It’s not exactly fair or wise, but that’s the reality of baseball’s salary structure.

Despite payroll being slashed in the name of not paying the luxury tax, the Yankees still employ their silly and outdated “no extensions” policy. Even if payroll wasn’t coming down, it’s still a bad idea to have this umbrella policy that prevents the team from signing players at below-market rates early in their career. To their credit, the Yankees broke their policy to sign Robinson Cano way back when and they were willing to do the same to re-sign Russell Martin two years ago, but those are the only exceptions to date. Robertson should be the third.

The idea is simple: sign Robertson to a setup man contract now before he racks up a bunch of saves next summer and earns a closer contract next winter. We’re not talking about saving a little bit of cash here. The difference between a great free agent setup man and even a slightly above-average free agent closer is still a couple million bucks in average annual value. The Yankees want to keep payroll under the luxury tax threshold and signing Robertson now would help accomplish that while keeping an elite arm in the bullpen.

Believe it or not, a decent amount of setup relievers have signed contract extensions one year prior to free agency in recent years. Some pretty great ones as well. Teams are locking their best young players up to multi-year contracts more than ever before and that includes relievers, the most volatile position in the game. With an assist from MLBTR’s Extension Tracker, here are three setup relievers who signed long-term extensions one season prior to free agency in recent years:

Robertson Ryan Madson Sean Marshall Santiago Casilla
Platform Year fWAR 1.6 1.1 2.6 -0.4
Previous 3 Years fWAR 5.9 2.1 5.0 0.6
Platform Year bWAR 2.4 1.1 1.6 0.5
Previous 3 Years bWAR 8.1 2.2 5.8 3.6
Career Saves 8 5 7 37
Years ? 3 3 3
Dollars ? $12M $16.5M $15M

WAR is certainly not the best way to evaluate past performance — or project future performance, for that matter — especially when it comes to short relievers. The leverage component still needs work. WAR works just fine for this exercise though because we’re only trying to get in the contract ballpark, not pin down exact numbers. We just want to be close.

Madson’s contract is not a great comparable because he signed it prior to the 2009 season. It’s a bit outdated. The Marshall and Casilla contracts are a bit more relevant since they were signed prior to 2012 and 2013, respectively. Casilla is a good example of the earning power of saves — he’s been rather average overall but had piled up some saves before signing his contract, including spending a half-season as closer for the Giants immediately prior to signing his extension. Saves pay, man, and that’s what the Yankees should be trying to avoid with Robertson.

Robertson’s performance over the last three years is clearly a notch above the other guys, but his platform year performance (the year immediately prior to signing a multi-year contract) is in line with Madson’s and especially Marshall’s. Three years sure looks like the standard length here, meaning the Yankees would be buying out Robertson’s final year of arbitration-eligibility as well as two years of free agency. Since he’s projected to earn $5.5M in 2014 — a higher average annual value than Madson and Casilla and equal to Marshall’s contract — the team will have to offer their setup man a little bit more. At the very least, Robertson’s agent should ask for a bit more.

(Elsa/Getty)

(Elsa/Getty)

Here’s the complicated part: Robertson and his agent aren’t stupid. They know his earning power will skyrocket in the next 12 months if he establishes himself as a legitimate closer, so why would they settle for setup man dollars right now? I suppose Robertson and his family could really value the financial security that comes with signing right now, but even then there would have to be some compromise. The Yankees are planning to move Robertson into a more prominent role and at this point of his career, he’s earned the right to be paid accordingly. If the team doesn’t feel that way, then they could wait and get involved in the bidding way next winter.

Based mostly on the recent contracts but also considering things like performance and inflation, my guesstimate is that three years and $21M might be amenable to both the team and Robertson. That’s an average of $7M annually — they could structure the salaries something like $5M in 2013, $7.5M in 2014, and $8.5M in 2015 — which would be the record for a non-lolownership Rafael Soriano setup man. It would also be mid-range closer dollars, on par with guys like Jonathan Broxton and (the good version of) Brian Fuentes. Robertson would surely get more on the open market with a strong closer season under his belt, but remember, he’d be trading maximum earning potential for security by signing an extension.

Relievers are the riskiest investments in baseball but teams still need them. Robertson is an upper-echelon reliever and the Yankees know pretty much everything there is to know about him. They know his work ethic, his mechanics, his stuff, his medical history, his family, the whole nine. All of that is important when deciding whether to commit to someone long-term. The Yankees might not like the idea of signing Robertson for multiple years, it’s possible they think he’s an injury risk or whatever, but if they do want to keep him around well into the future, then they should look into signing him this winter before he racks up a ton of saves and the price tag goes way up.

Categories : Hot Stove League

33 Comments»

  1. Bavarian Yankee says:

    I agree that something around 3/21 sounds about right. I think there’s no way Robertson would turn that down, he wouldn’t get much more on the open market because he doesn’t have the stupid “proven closer” tag (yet).

  2. Need Pitching & Hitting says:

    I can’t imagine they’ll do anything that makes getting under $189M in 2014 more difficult.
    If they’re trying to win next year and still get under $189M, they are going to need every extra penny they can find under the cap, making this proposal a non-starter.

  3. mitch says:

    Robertson’s 5.9 fWAR over the last three years is third for relievers behind only Kimbrel and Holland….definitely would be nice to lock him up for a few years.

  4. Dan says:

    I don’t really get the Yanks philosophy on extensions. Was there some big contract extension they got burned with in the Cashman era? The only two big extensions I can really think of were Jeter and Cano, and both worked out really well.

    As far as Robertson goes, I think the question is how much do you care about $189. Locking him up on say a 3/$18-20m contract right now would save money in the long run, but it means it’s a $1-2 million harder to get under $189m.

    • Robinson Tilapia says:

      I think it’s more trying to play some hardball when the image of the team was one of limitless money in the past.

      I get it. I just think that, as things change, they need to walk back from that a bit. That doesn’t mean lock up everyone who looks good for a couple of months, though.

    • vin says:

      The policy made a bit more sense for the Yankees 10+ years ago.

      I see it as this:
      The Yankee payroll was virtually limitless – when compared to other teams’ payrolls and the going rate of free agents. Why should the team risk guaranteeing money on a young player with a comparatively short track record of success when there will be a Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Johnny Damon, Mike Mussina, or Tom Gordon around the corner? When only looking at short-term, on the field performance, it’s a sensible strategy.

      The problem was when revenues soared, and other teams’ payrolls followed suit. At that point, the Yankees were in stiff competition for those prime FA’s. Also, the more creative teams realized there was a benefit to locking up their young players because they couldn’t play in the deep water of the FA pool. Then, before you knew it, seemingly every team in the game (except one) started buying out their young players’ free agency years.

      The good (for the Yankees) news is that these things go in cycles. Players and, more importantly, their agents will start realizing just how much more valuable it is to be a FA when there’s slim pickings out there. A few players will skip the long term security and roll the dice on free agency. After those trailblazers start upping the price of FA contracts, more players will follow suit.

      That’s how I see it anyway.

      • mitch says:

        I agree with your point about players risking potentially guaranteed money and holding out. I also think things could change from the team perspective. No team has really gotten burned yet by issuing a long term before they have to. What if Joey Votto or Evan Longoria had some career ending injury? Then you have mid-market teams crippled with guaranteed contracts they could have waited on giving out.

        • I'm a looser baby so why don't you kill me? says:

          Well a career ending injury would be covered by insurance so even if the team is on the hook for some portion of the contract it’s doubtful that it would cripple them.

          • Laz says:

            That is assuming the team chooses to take out insurance on the players. Not all contracts are insured, and most teams don’t disclose many of the players they have insured.

    • Ed says:

      We overplay the “no extensions” thing around here.

      The policy came down to three things:

      1) They had a lot of players in their mid to late 30s and didn’t want to commit big long term money to them sooner than necessary. We’re talking guys like Posada, Jeter, Mo, Sheffield, Matsui, Damon, etc. For the outfielders that worked out in their favor. For Posada, they probably ended up having to guarantee him an extra year. For Jeter and Mo it probably didn’t make much of a difference.

      2) They didn’t want in-season negotiations as a distraction.

      3) Signing a player early generally means you take on more risk by guaranteeing more years, which you hope is offset by getting a discount price. The Yankees were more concerned with risk than with money.

      The policy never applied to pre-free agency players, as they’re all on year to year deals. They have to negotiate with them every year anyway, so they’re open to negotiating long term deals if it makes sense. The main reason they haven’t done much of it is because they haven’t had guys it makes sense to extend.

      They signed Cano long term. They tried to sign Martin. They talked a little with Wang around his peak. Hughes, Joba, and Kennedy obviously didn’t do enough to deserve big contracts. I don’t think they’re willing to commit long term to Gardner. Cashman has been avoiding long term deals with relievers for a while now. Who else has been a candidate for an extension in their arb years?

    • Caballo Sin Nombre says:

      I think the message was supposed to be that the Yankees would pay top dollar, but only for proven performance.

  5. Robinson Tilapia says:

    Locking some guys up before they hit FA and not having extensions be the exception rather than the rule is a change in philosophy I’d like to see if this is going to be a tighter ship moving forward. I think DRob’s a perfect example of someone for whom the small risk involved in more than worth it. 3/21? Absolutely. My gut is that it’ll be seen as a relative bargain by the time 2014 is done.

  6. Bubba says:

    Should have been done a year ago. The “no extensions” policy is doesn’t really have a place in this changing financial landscape. If they want to keep it, I recommend changing the name to the overpay for decline years policy.

  7. Don Mattingly says:

    “he may sign now so his family has financial security”…really? Do you think a guy who makes a million dollars really needs financial security? You bet your bottom dollar he will wait until he has 30 saves this year to sign another contract whether it’s with the Yankees or another team.

    • mitch says:

      What if he blows out his arm? Then he lost 21 million dollars he could have had

    • Caballo Sin Nombre says:

      Absolutely. What matters for financial security is lifetime earnings, not what he makes in one year. Robertson has made about $5M lifetime, gross, so far. Subtract agent fees and taxes leaves maybe $3M, max. If he blows out his arm now, that’s not a lot when spread over an entire lifetime. Even if you include the additional $3M net he is going to get in 2014.

  8. Jedile says:

    Speaking of Craig Kimbrel, think he will be the all time saves leader? He already has ~140 saves and he is only 25. Which is the age that Rivera joined the Show. Since Kimbrel is a power pitching I don’t think he will be nearly as durable as Rivera. I foresee some [insert common pitching injury here] around his near age 30 season a la Joe Nathan.

    It’s interesting to think about, but I think Rivera’s save record might stand for a while. I am all for Having Robertson as our closer and then hiring one of the Azns to be our new setup man! and give Betances a shot at the setup role in spring!

    2014 is already looking younger, and I like that!

  9. Ryan Madson.

    Hahahahahah.

    Didn’t he (and/or Boras) turn down a 4/$44M deal from the Phillies, and then subsequently blow his arm out? I want to say I last heard his name floating around in Anaheim or something, but that decision backfired horribly.

  10. Vern Sneaker says:

    The comment a while ago about an arm injury is the key one. It’s riskier for Robertson to take a chance on that than it is for the Yanks to offer the extension — the team goes on but the pitcher’s career is ruined. This is definitely worth doing and I think he’d go for it.

  11. mt says:

    I had a similar comment about this yesterday – after reading this artcile, I guess I can see why Yankes might want to sign a long-term deal now (they may not need to see Robertson as a closer to be confident about paying him higher dollars) but I absolutely don’t see Robertson (and his agent doing it) when waiting just one year (yes, his arm could blow out but not likely) may mean significant contractual gains.

    But even from yankees perspective, given their other dead weight contracts and the need to get new players to fill holes that both make it very hard to raech $189 million, I can see Yanks in 2014 being OK with the one year arbitration deal (whose one year AAV will be less than any extension signed now) and then know they will have to pay a big(ger) long-term deal starting in 2015 when he hits free agency. 2014 dollars may be that much more precious than 2015-2017 dollars.

  12. Conor in China says:

    An extension is worth talking about, but I think negotiating a reasonable salary is easier said than done. I doubt 3 years 21 million is enough. That mitigates some of his risk, but I think Robertson will earn at least 3 and 30M on the free agent market after a season closing. He’s better and younger than Soriano for instance and he got 2 and 28M with a vesting option and cost the Nationals a pick.

    Further, if the Yankees are going to give an extension, they should front load it. The AAV will be the same, but they’ll have extra cash in 2014 if they reduce salaries to 189M so they might as well invest that now. That might make it more appealing to Robertson too.

  13. qwerty says:

    Has anyone considered that Robertson may not be able to close out games? I know many were assuming Robertson could close based on his 2011 season, but this was quickly put to rest after he imploded in closing situations in 2012.

  14. WhittakerWalt says:

    Nothing in this article makes sense, Axisa. You speak of Robertson as if he’s actually good, and worth keeping. Don’t you know the Yankees are utterly incapable of developing a pitching prospect?

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