Thought to be the best closer on the market this off-season, Rafael Soriano was supposed to be a hot commodity in free agency. After weeks of waiting and watching other relievers grab inflated deals, many began to wonder whether Soriano’s lack of urgency would prevent him from receiving a lucrative contract. That all changed on Thursday, as the New York Yankees signed Soriano to a three year deal worth $35 million. The Yankees have made Soriano one of the highest paid set-up men in the league, but was it a smart decision?
For all of his talents, Soriano is a risky signing for the Yankees. As analysts, we often harp on teams for offering multi-year contracts to relief pitchers, and Soriano is no exception. Throughout his career, Soriano has missed significant time due to injuries. He missed almost all of the 2004 and 2005 seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery, and elbow surgery put him on the shelf for most of 2008. Even though Soriano has posted impressive stats when he’s on the mound, he has never stayed healthy for three consecutive seasons.
While Soriano’s health will be a major factor in determining whether this was a worthwhile decision for the Yankees, it’s tough to argue with his results when healthy. Over his career, Soriano owns a 9.62 K/9 and a 2.73 ERA (3.23 FIP) in 395 innings pitched. Soriano pitched in the AL East last season, so the Yankees know he can handle the hitters in the division. Soriano, however, is coming off the best consecutive seasons of his career. Not only has Soriano remained healthy over those seasons, but he’s also thrown 137.3 innings over that stretch, the highest two-year total in his career. Perhaps the Yankees see that as a harbinger of good health in Soriano’s future.
Complicating this issue is the fact that the Yankees already have an exceptional closer. While their bullpen may have been an area of concern, did they really have to spend $35 million on Soriano when cheaper options remain on the market? For the Yankees, this deal is just as much about 2012 as it is about next season. As entertaining as he is to watch, Mariano Rivera won’t be around forever, and the Yankees view Soriano as his replacement.
Although it’s risky to pay out that much money to ensure you will have a good closer in two years, money is hardly an issue for the Yankees. With this signing, the Yankees will also have to give their 2011 1st round pick to a division rival. The Yankees aren’t getting any younger, and the loss of a draft pick in a loaded draft could come back to haunt them in the future.
It’s tough to defend any team that gives out such a large contract to a relief pitcher and this instance is no different. Soriano’s injury history, combined with the fact that pitchers struggle to remain healthy in general, makes this deal very risky for the Yankees. It’s certainly possible that Soriano stays healthy throughout the length of his deal, but history tells us that it’s unlikely. Despite the fact that Soriano had no leverage, the Yankees still managed to pay out $35 million to secure a set-up man (and future closer). Soriano also managed to obtain out clauses in his contract, meaning he might not be around to close by the time the Yankees really need him to step into that role. The Yankees took a big risk signing Soriano, and even though he should pitch effectively when healthy, his history says this could be a bumpy ride.