What Went Right: Rafael Soriano

Over the next few weeks we’re going to spend some time reviewing the entire 2012 season, which featured another division title and unfortunately another disappointing playoff exit.

#untuck (Jared Wickerham/Getty)

A year ago, Rafael Soriano was the world’s most overqualified and overpaid seventh inning reliever. The right-hander battled injury and early-season ineffectiveness after signing a three-year, $35M pact with the Yankees that included a pair of team unfriendly opt-out clauses after years one and two. Twelve months later, he was their bullpen MVP and Mariano Rivera‘s ninth inning replacement.

Soriano, 32, opened this past season as Joe Girardi‘s seventh inning reliever again, and two weeks into the schedule he had twice as many walks (six) as strikeouts (three) in his first four appearances (four innings). He settled down and managed to curb the walks, and on the day of Rivera’s injury he owned a 2.25 ERA in eight appearances and innings. David Robertson initially stepped in as the closer, but a little more than a week later he went down with an oblique injury. The Yankees had lost their two best relievers in the span of eight days, bumping everyone up the totem pole two notches.

Luckily for the Yankees, Soriano was an accomplished closer who drew Cy Young votes for his effort with the Rays in 2010, the All-Star season that landed him the big contract in New York. He saved his first game on May 10th, his second on May 14th, and soon after the shutout appearances and dominant ninth innings piled up. Soriano pitched so well that he kept the closer’s gig even after Robertson came off the DL in early-June, and there wasn’t even a hint of controversy. He landed the job almost by default but kept it based on merit. He was that good.

(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)

At one point down the stretch, Soriano appeared in eleven of 21 team games as they were fending off the Orioles. He did run into some homer problems late in the season (five homers in his last 16 innings), but nothing that would derailed him or the team. Faced with the daunting task of replacing Rivera in October, Soriano threw 4.1 shutout innings in three postseason appearances. Two of those three appearances were multi-inning outings against the Orioles in the ALDS that kept the game tied into extra innings.

All told, Soriano pitched to a 2.26 ERA with 57 strikeouts and just 16 walks in 57 appearances and 55.2 innings after taking over as the team’s closer. He saved 42 games in 46 chances and led baseball with five saves of more than one inning. Four of those five saves came down the stretch in August and September, when the Yankees started to slide and Baltimore crept closer in the standings. Soriano joined Rivera, John Wetteland, and Dave Righetti as the only members of the 40-save club in franchise history, and only Fernando Rodney and Jim Johnson nailed down more games this season. They had a 30-something game head start, remember.

There is no replacing Mariano Rivera — by bWAR, Soriano had Mo’s 13th best season in 2013 — but Soriano made life after the injury as painless as possible. This was a situation that could have easily (and nearly did when Robertson blew a save a few days after Rivera’s injury) spiraled out of control and become a disaster, though that didn’t happen. The Silent One stepped in, stepped up, and served as the backbone of the team’s bullpen after the greatest relief pitcher in human history went down with a fluke injury a month in the season.

What Went Right: Postseason Pitching

Over the next few weeks we’re going to spend some time reviewing the entire 2012 season, which featured another division title and unfortunately another disappointing playoff exit.

(Elsa/Getty)

As we discussed earlier today, the Yankees as a team basically hit like a pitcher in the postseason. They put together a collective .188/.254/.303 batting line in their nine postseason games and scored just two runs in the final three games of the ALCS. It was tough to watch and just flat out pathetic, there’s really no other way to describe it.

The pitching staff, on the other hand, was absolutely stellar up until ALCS Game Four. The starters churned out quality start after quality start, and the bullpen did all it could to preserve leads and keep deficits close. After posting a 3.86 ERA (3.98 FIP) during the regular season, the Yankees received a 2.76 ERA (~3.45 FIP) in 88 postseason innings from the pitching staff.

CC Sabathia
Unfortunately, Sabathia’s season will be remembered for ending on a sour note as the Tigers battered him for six runs on eleven hits (!) in just 3.2 innings in ALCS Game Four. It was an ugly start in a generally ugly postseason showing by the Yankees as whole, but it was also the exception rather than the rule for the pitching staff.

Sabathia, of course, helped get the Yankees to the ALCS with a pair of dominant outings against the Orioles in the ALDS. He allowed two runs in 8.2 innings in Game One against Baltimore, then followed it up by allowing just one run in the decisive Game Five win. All told, Sabathia struck out 19 batters and walked just five in 21.1 playoff innings including the ALCS disaster. He set a new ALDS record with 17.2 innings pitches, nearly two full innings more than the previous record.

Andy Pettitte
A year ago Pettitte was retired back home, but he got the itch to pitch and came back to the Yankees early in the season. He slotted in as their number two starter in the postseason due in large part to the schedule, as the club tried to optimize the amount of rest for each of their starters. Pettitte made two playoff starts, one in each round, and he tossed up a quality start in each. He held the Orioles to three runs in seven innings in ALDS Game Two and the Tigers to two runs in 6.2 innings in ALCS Game One. As per his norm, Andy did allow a lot of baserunners but continually pitched out of jams. For a guy who was out of baseball a year ago, allowing five runs in 13.2 postseason innings is a minor miracle.

(Elsa/Getty)

Hiroki Kuroda
Kuroda was New York’s best starting pitcher from Opening Day through the end of the season, and he turned in a pair of gems in the postseason. Following Sabathia and Pettitte, the first-year Yankee held the Orioles to two runs in 8.1 innings in ALDS Game One before allowing three runs in 7.2 innings in ALCS Game Two. That second start came on three days’ rest, the first time he’d ever done that in his career. Kuroda struck out a season-high eleven in that game, and it would have been eight innings of one-run ball had second base ump Jeff Nelson not blown an obvious out call on Omar Infante at second base. The bullpen allowed two inherited runners to score (charged to Kuroda) after the error. Sixteen innings (really 16.1) of five-run (really three-run) ball from the number three starter? Sign me up for that every day of the week.

Phil Hughes
Like Sabathia, Hughes ended his season on a down note as a stiff back forced him out of ALCS Game Three after just three innings of work. That shouldn’t erase his ALDS effort however, as he held the Orioles to one run in 6.2 innings while striking out eight in Game Four. Hughes only allowed one run in the ALCS start before exiting with the injury as well, so all told his postseason performance featured just two runs in 9.2 inning of work. As far as number four starters go, you can’t do much better.

The Bullpen
Eight of the nine postseason games were very close into the late innings, and the bullpen stepped up in support of the starters in a big way. They allowed just eight runs (seven earned) in 27.1 total innings (2.30 ERA) while walking just four (!), including one intentionally. The late-inning duo of Rafael Soriano and David Robertson allowed just one run in 9.2 combined innings, striking out seven against zero walks and five hits. The lone run was a solo homer off Robertson in ALCS Game Five, when the game was already out of reach. Boone Logan and Clay Rapada combined to retire 11 of 12 left-handed batters faced, with the one exception being a walk by Prince Fielder. David Phelps, who allowed four runs (three earned) in 3.1 total innings, was the only clear negative on a pitching staff who was absolutely dynamite overall in the postseason.

Update: Soriano likely to opt-out after the season

October 20th: Scott Boras strongly hinted to Joel Sherman that Soriano will in fact opt-out, though the two sides still have to talk before a final decision is made. Sherman says the Yankees are unlikely to offer an extension but Heyman says they will make him a qualifying offer to ensure they receive draft pick compensation if he signs elsewhere.

Sept. 13th: Via Jon Heyman, there “is a good chance” that Rafael Soriano will exercise the opt-out clause in his contract and become a free agent after the season. The Yankees aren’t convinced he’ll walk away from his $14M salary in 2013, however.

Soriano, 32, has been brilliant since taking over for the injured Mariano Rivera, pitching to a 2.15 ERA (2.74 FIP) with a 48/9 K/BB in 46 innings as closer. He’s gone 37-for-40 in save chances as well. Unless Rivera decides to retire or the Yankees decide to scrap the 2014 payroll plan, I can’t imagine they’ll re-sign Soriano to a fat multi-year contract given his history of elbow problems and the fact that Brian Cashman didn’t even want to sign him in the first place.

Mailbag: A-Rod, Nix, Williams, Soriano, Contracts

Got five questions for you this week, and none of them are directly tied to the ALDS. Consider this a break from the playoffs for a few hours. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us questions.

(Al Bello/Getty)

Bill asks: If the Yanks were to buy out A-Rod‘s contract (not saying they should just if they did) would his salary still count towards the team salary for getting under the $189 million limit?

Yeah, it would. According to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, player salary that counts towards the luxury tax is “the value of the total compensation (cash or otherwise) paid to a Player pursuant to the terms of a Uniform Player’s Contract, including any guarantee by the Club of payments by third parties, for a particular championship season. Salary shall include, without limitation, the value of non-cash compensation such as the provision of personal translators, personal massage therapists, and airfare and tickets exceeding normal Club allotments.”

In English, that means anything a team plays a player will count towards the tax. The structure of the buyout would determine when and how much applies to the luxury tax calculations. There are five years and $114M left on A-Rod’s contract after this season and the Yankees are goimng to pay every penny. They’re not trading him, he’s not going to retire, and they’re not going to negotiate a buyout so they can cut him loose. It’s not happening. He’ll be around until 2017 whether you like it or not. Ownership made their bed and now they’ll have to sleep in it.

Nick asks: Do you think that Jayson Nix could wind up on the Yankees again next season?

I definitely think it’s possible. Nix, 30, will be arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter and will probably still be in line for a six-figure salary next season. I have a hard time seeing a career up-and-down bench player with a .214/.285/.371 batting line pulling in more than a million bucks his first time through arbitration.

Nix is a useful role player capable of playing a ton of positions and providing some offense against left-handers, so it makes sense for the Yankees to hold onto him. He shouldn’t deter them from acquiring a better utility infielder if one comes along this offseason, the only problem is that he is out of minor league options and can’t be sent to the minors next season without clearing waivers. I wouldn’t call Nix a lock for the 2013 roster by any means, but there’s certainly a chance of it happening.

(Brian Bissell/Future Star Photos)

Austin asks: What do you make of recent Baseball America questions regarding Mason Williams‘ makeup/attitude? Isn’t this Gary Sanchez 2011 stuff?

Well, the Sanchez stuff last season was so bad that the team had to send him to Extended Spring Training for disciplinary reasons. He refused to pinch-hit in a game and catch a side session, which is a major no-no. The Williams stuff was reported as “a few headaches,” which frankly is the first I’ve heard of him having any kind of real makeup problem. Mason has been knocked for being too hard on himself and getting frustrated with bad at-bats or plays, but nothing that created a problem with other players or coaches. We’ll have to pay attention to this in the future, because this report did catch me a bit off guard.

JW asks: Here’s a mailbag question: assume Rafael Soriano opts out and the Yankees make a qualifying offer. Under the new FA compensation rules, does it project that the signing team would have to give up a draft pick? I know that the number of players whose signing warrants giving up a pick has been reduced by a lot.

Under the new system, a team would have to forfeit a draft pick to sign a top free agent (who has received a qualifying offer), but that pick does not go to the player’s former team. It just disappears. The former team receives one supplemental first round pick instead, which is pulled out of thin air like the old system. I assume the Yankees will make Soriano a qualifying offer if he opts out because he’d be walking away from more money ($14M) by opting out than he would get through the offer ($13.3-13.4M). I have no idea who would give up a draft pick to sign him but it doesn’t really matter — the Yankees will end up with the same compensation pick no matter where he ends up.

GB asks: If Curtis Granderson, CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, Mark Teixeira, David Robertson, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter were all FA’s after this season, what kind of contracts would you see them getting?

Well this is a fun one. I have an amazing knack for underestimating free agent contracts, but I’ll give this my best shot anyway…

  • Granderson — 40+ homer power is rare, so that alone will get Curtis paid at age 31. Clubs will probably be gun-shy because of Jason Bay, but his four-year, $66M deal with the Mets seems like an appropriate benchmark.
  • Sabathia — Despite the elbow injury and sub-par second half, Sabathia would still wind up with $20M+ a year easy. Frankly I bet he could match the five-year, $122.5M deal he signed with the Yankees last winter if he went back out onto the open market this year. Pitchers of Sabathia’s caliber very rarely hit free agency.
  • Hughes — How does four years and $40M sound? Phil is only 27, so you’d theoretically be buying all of his peak years and expect some improvement going forward. Maybe $44-48M would be closer to reality as a free agent.
  • Teixeira — At this point, age 32, Teixeira is just a touch above the first base league average offensively (115 vs. 106 wRC+) while remaining a stud with the glove. First baseman make more money than anyone, so I think another Bay-like four-year, $66M deal would be in the cards.
  • Robertson — A stud reliever at age 27 is a prime candidate to get overpaid, especially if someone plans on making him a closer. Joaquin Benoit’s three-year, $16.5M deal with the Tigers seems like the floor here. Three or fours years at $6-7M annually wouldn’t surprise me at all.
  • A-Rod: Not much right now, probably like two years and $20M with most of that coming on reputation.
  • Jeter: The Cap’n is in a weird spot because I don’t think any other team would pursue him as a free agent. Not because he’s a bad player or anything, but because of the “Yankees or retirement” vibe. Could Jeter match the three-year, $51M contract he signed two years ago this offseason? Yeah, I think he might be able too.

Must-Click Link: The Silent One

Here’s a fantastic story for the afternoon: ESPN’s Jorge Arangure wrote about fill-in closer Rafael Soriano, a quiet man who puts baseball and family above all else. Arangure chronicled Soriano’s climb to the majors, which started as the child of a poor single mother who refused to falsify documents so he could sign with the Hiroshima Carp as a switch-hitting outfielder at age 16. It’s an awesome read and gets RAB’s highest level of recommendation, so make sure you check it out.

Thoughts following the doubleheader sweep

(Al Bello/Getty)

After going nearly a month without consecutive wins, the Yankees won two games in the span of about nine hours yesterday. They’ve also won four straight, six of seven, and nine of 13. If the Mariners had been something other than pitiful these last two nights, the division lead would be two or three games instead of just one. But hey, I’ll take the one-game lead. Better than being one back.

1. I don’t want to make too much of one game (one day, really), but man it would be such a huge lift if Ichiro Suzuki got hot and became a more consistent offensive threat these next few weeks. No one is asking him to go 4-for-4 with four steals every game — he’s more than welcome to do that, if he wants — but something more than the three or four hits a week he was providing would be nice. Prior to yesterday Ichiro had only been 6-for-9 in stolen base attempts with New York, so adding some more speed to the offense would be appreciated as well. He was awesome on Wednesday and I hope he builds on it going forward.

2. Ichiro started against the left-handed Ricky Romero last night because it appears that Joe Girardi has finally run out of patience with Andruw Jones. He’s been dreadful in the second half (.137/.250/.225 in 120 plate appearances), and that sure looked like his last pinch-hitting hurrah in Game One. When Girardi needed a right-hander off the bench with the go-ahead run on third and the left-handed Aaron Loup on the mound in Game Two, he went to Steve Pearce. If he’s not hitting, especially against lefties, there won’t be any reason to carry Andruw on the postseason roster should the Yankees qualify.

(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)

3. Speaking of not making the potential postseason roster, what about Raul Ibanez? He’s only been slightly less useless than Jones since the All-Star break, putting up a .190/.287/.356 line in 143 plate appearances. Remember when Hideki Matsui fell into a slump and every single at-bat was a weak ground ball to second? That’s Ibanez now, everything is weakly hit to the right side. He could just be worn down from playing the field so much earlier in the year or he could just be completely done, but at some point soon the Yankees will have to pull the plug on the other half of their preseason DH platoon. There isn’t much season left and neither guy is getting it done.

4. It goes without saying that the biggest positive development from yesterday was Andy Pettitte. He wasn’t sharp, but he still managed to throw five shutout innings against a bad offense after spending the last twelve weeks or so recovering from a leg fracture. Pettitte will need every bit of his final two regular season starts to a) build his pitch count back up over 100, and b) shake the rust off, but it was definitely encouraging to see him come out and pitch well in his first start off the DL. With all due respect to David Phelps, who pitched well in the spot start last night as well as last time out against the Red Sox, getting Andy back in the rotation is huge. Tack on Ivan Nova replacing Freddy Garcia, and suddenly the starting staff looks a lot more formidable.

5. Thanks to Rafael Soriano‘s two-save effort yesterday, the Yankees are up to 50 total saves as a team this year. Soriano has 42, Mariano Rivera had five before he got hurt, and the trio of David Robertson, Boone Logan, and Derek Lowe have one each. It’s only the second time since 2005 that the Yankees have had more than 50 team saves in a single season, joining the 2009 squad (51). Obviously that means they’ll go on to win the World Series this year. Okay … in all seriousness, it’s a function of all the close games they’ve been playing. One hundred and fifteen of their 148 games have been decided by fewer than five runs, a whopping 77.7%. Last year it was 71%, the year before 68%, and the year before that 69%. Soriano has saved each of the team’s last six wins and ten of their last 12. He’s been absolutely huge for the Yankees this year, and yesterday’s performance was probably the highlight of his season to date.

Mailbag: Draft Picks, Gordon, Girardi, Soriano

I went with short-ish answers this week so I could squeeze in as many questions as possible, but I still only got to six. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us anything, mailbag questions or otherwise.

Missin’ you. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Mark asks: Assuming Brett Gardner is indeed out for the year and that the Yanks’ main AL title competitor, the Rangers, make another big trading deadline splash and acquire either Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke, should the Yanks counter by acquiring a solid hitting left fielder?

Nah, don’t make moves to “answer” another team’s moves. That’s how you end up with a Kei Igawa situation. If the Yankees are able to find a reasonable upgrade for the outfield given Gardner’s surgery, then by all means go for it. What another team — particularly a non-division rival — does is immaterial. Put the best possible team on the field and it doesn’t matter what everyone else does.

Cory asks: One big element missing from the offense this year is speed. Obviously Gardy’s out and his 49 steals from a year ago makes a big difference, but a 36-year-old Alex Rodriguez is the team leader. 38-year-old Jeter is second, and rounding out the top eight are guys with limited action (Jayson Nix, Dewayne Wise, Eduardo Nunez, Gardner), a 40-year-old Ibanez, and Curtis Granderson. Do you expect Cashman to target speed come July 31, or is that an element they can live without this year?

We’re already heard that if they do make a trade to acquire a replacement outfielder, that it would be a speedy center field type similar to Gardner. Overall team speed is the club’s one glaring hole just because there is none of it. They’re very station-to-station but they can live with that because they get guys on base and hit a bunch of extra-base hits. I think they can get by without any speed but it is something that would be nice to have, just to add a different element to the offense and occasionally put some pressure on the pitcher. Like I said, if they find someone reasonable to fill that need, by all means go for it.

Mike asks: Does signing money from competitive lottery picks factor into a team’s bonus pool? Could you see the Yanks sending a prospect to a team in exchange for the pick and the pool money, someone like a Adam Warren or Corban Joseph? Other team gets a prospect near MLB ready and doesn’t have to pay $1M for him, Yankees get the pick and don’t have to lose the prospect in the Rule 5 draft.

Yep, the extra competitive balance lottery picks comes with extra draft pool money and they can be traded. There are a dozen such picks and the Yankees don’t have one because they’re the Yankees. I have no idea how teams will value those picks in a trade but I’d guess they’d value the draft pool money more than the pick itself. Trading a near-MLB ready guy like Warren or CoJo seems like a backwards move given the high attrition rate of draft picks in general. I’d rather use them as part of a package for a piece to help the big league team or just keep them for depth. These competitive lottery picks seem like they would be the second or third piece in any trade, not the headliner.

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Jon asks: A lot has been mentioned about the Royals looking for starting pitching (now and future). Could a package of David Phelps, Brett Marshall, and another lesser prospect get us Alex Gordon?

I don’t think that’s nearly enough. Gordon’s one of the better outfielders in the game even if his power dropped off quite a bit this year, and he’s signed to very reasonable long-term contract ($50M through 2015 with a player option for 2016). As impressive as Phelps has been in the first half, he’s still just mid-to-back-end starter and that’s not enough incentive for Royals. If they’re going to move Gordon, they’ll need a potential impact, number one type guy in return. Just look at what the White Sox gave up to acquire Nick Swisher at a similar point of his career — a potential front-line guy in Gio Gonzalez, another high-end pitching prospect (Fautino DeLoSantos), and a solid outfield prospect (Ryan Sweeney). Gordon obviously makes sense for New York but they would really need to sweeten that pot.

Michael asks: What do you think it would take for Joe Girardi to get fired in the next couple of years? Losing in the ALDS, losing in the wild card round, not making the playoffs, or maybe even just not winning the World Series?

An awful lot. Hal Steinbrenner, Brian Cashman, and the rest of the brain trust hand-picked Girardi for the job so it would take a ton for him to get fired. They’d have to miss the playoffs a few years in a row I believe, and even then he would just be a scapegoat. More than likely, the end of the Girardi era will come when he says he’s had enough and decides to walk away due to burnout or because another team offers a megacontract.

Anonymous asks: Given Rafael Soriano‘s success in Mariano Rivera‘s absence, do you see the front office pushing Cashman to renegotiate a contract and extend him beyond 2013 when this season is over? Despite the tools, something tells me David Robertson won’t be successful as our closer and there’s no telling how Mo will perform coming back from an injury at 43 years of age. Speaking of which, what kind of money will Mo receive next year if he’s healthy?

I really hope they don’t push to re-sign Soriano. If he opts out, say thank you very much and let him walk. That $14M he’s owed next season can go not just towards replacing Soriano with another high-end reliever, but also replacing Swisher in right (or even re-signing him) and maybe even adding various depth pieces. Soriano’s been awesome, better than we could have possibly expected once Mo went down, but he won’t continue pitching at this level because no reliever not named Mariano ever has sustained a performance like this across multiple years. It just doesn’t happen and I wouldn’t expect a 32-year-old with a history of elbow problems to do it.

As for Mo, I think they’ll re-sign him to a one-year deal at similar money to what he’s making now, so $15-16M. I know he’s 43 and coming off knee surgery and all that, but I have a hard time thinking they’ll play hardball with the money. They might hold the line on one-year but I doubt they’d balk at a high salary. It’s just money and Mo’s one of the few players with legitimate high-end marquee value that transcends his on-field value.