When the Yankees signed Rafafel Soriano in late January, they thought they were getting a lockdown late-inning reliever. As the closer for the 2010 AL East Champions, Soriano had posted a 1.73 ERA in 62.1 innings while recording 45 saves and notching 8.2 strikeouts per 9 innings to just 2.0 walks. As a one-time setup man-turned-closer who had thrived in the East, the Yankees figured he would fit easily into the 8th inning role.
Before he hit in the disabled list in May, the club couldn’t have been more wrong. Lest we forget, Soriano had appeared in 16 games for the Yanks and just once had he posted a 1-2-3 innings He has so far walked 11 — only three fewer than all of last year — while striking out just 10. His 5.40 ERA with a 5.92 xFIP and an ugly 1.73 WHIP tell the story as well, and he had been booed off the mound a few times before inflammation in his right elbow shelved him. Considering how poorly he had pitched, we shouldn’t expect the Yanks simply to hand him back the setup role, right? Wrong.
After the Yanks’ nightcap loss in Cincinnati yesterday, Joe Girardi spoke with reporters about his injured players. Soriano is only now beginning a throwing program, but that’s not stopping the Yankee skipper from giving him his job back. “My inclination is Soriano would still be our eighth-inning guy, we got to see how he feels and how he’s throwing the ball. But my inclination is Soriano,” Girardi said. “That’s what we brought him here to do.”
On the one hand, Girardi’s statement isn’t much. Soriano won’t be eligible to come off the DL until around July 13. Hopefully, by then, he’ll be throwing like vintage Soriano and not like the Yanks’ early-season Soriano. Plus, the Yankees need the bullpen depth. With Soriano, Pedro Feliciano, Joba Chamberlain and Damaso Marte on the shelf, the Yanks have $17 million worth of arms on the shelf while David Robertson, Cory Wade, Luis Ayala and Boone Logan will be tasked with getting key outs. Saying that Soriano will be a key cog in the bullpen when he returns is akin to proclaiming that the sun will rise in the East tomorrow.
On the other hand, though, why? David Robertson — and Joba before him — has proven himself more than capable of holding down the eighth. While Robertson’s wild tendencies and his 5.9 walk rate are alarming, that he strikes out so many batters allows him some leeway with the bases on balls. In the intangibles department, he throws with confidence and hasn’t allowed himself to be fazed by high-leverage jams. At least with Robertson, the Yanks have a pitcher who has excelled in that role while Soriano, this year at least, hasn’t show them much.
Of course, the ideal solution would be the one first proposed earlier this winter when the Yanks signed Soriano. I had originally wanted the high-priced reliever to serve as a fireman, but Joe Girardi seems to prefer labels. Soriano was The Eighth Inning Guy before, and he will be when he gets back. The better use for either Soriano, if he’s throwing well, or Robertson, if he continues to do what he does best, would be as a fireman. Use these guys as the situation and not the inning dictates. After all, it’s more important to get to the 7th or 8th with the three-run lead intact than it is to watch a lesser reliever surrender a big hit while the better arms wait for their assigned inning. The Yanks’ bullpen — so far a strength — could be even stronger.
Ultimately, as much as Soriano hasn’t been as advertised this year, the Yanks and their fans should be rooting for him to return healthy and effective. The bullpen needs depth badly right now. That said, I’m not so keen on the idea of simply sticking him into the setup role right away, but that does seem to be the way Girardi manages.