Should Rafael Soriano Opt Out?

A report broke yesterday that Rafael Soriano may opt out of his $14 million option for next season with the Yankees in order to once again test the free agent market. On the surface, this would seem like a foolish idea. And when you dig deeper…it still sounds foolish, unless he is pulling a move similar to what C.C. Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez did with the Yankees, which is to opt out of his current deal in order to get a fresh deal with additional seasons on it.

When Soriano initially signed his three-year, $35 million deal with New York in the lead up to the 2011 season, many were genuinely perplexed by this, especially since it gave him an opt-out close after both the ’11 and ’12 seasons. But while the dollars were a bit much, this was simply more of the same from New York, who in addition to contracts for “Cyborg Reliever” Mariano Rivera, had signed relievers such as Kyle Farnsworth and Damaso Marte to multi-year deals.

The opt-out clauses were an interesting, and uncommon wrinkle for such a short contract. After Soriano struggled to a 4.12 ERA in ’11 in his first year with the club — his highest full-season ERA since his rookie season — there was little talk of him opting out except from wishful thinking Yankees’ fans. This season has been a different story, however. Even though he didn’t take over the closer’s mantle until the second week of May, he is third in the majors in saves, and he entered Thursday’s play tied for sixth in shutdowns. So now it’s a different story.

We generally scoff at the notion that teams who lavish relievers with multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts, but they haven’t really stopped doing it. Heath Bell, Jonathan Papelbon, Joaquin Benoit, Sean Marshall and Joe Nathan are but a few recent examples. But these contracts usually don’t work out too well. A non-exhaustive search of reliever contracts — contracts that were either $10 million or more in total, or more than $5 million average annual value, and have been started and completed in the past decade — shows that teams rarely get their money’s worth. Of the 41 contracts I looked at, only nine players delivered enough value to fulfill their contracts. Of those nine, only three were three-year deals, and Ryan Dempster — who didn’t fulfill his three-year contract with the Cubs until the final year, when he was moved back to the rotation — was one of them.

To simplify things, I grouped the arbitration years of some elite players — such as Papelbon, Bell and Bobby Jenks — into the sample, but even with those few arbitration cases in the mix, as well as a couple of multi-year contracts signed to avoid arbitration, the average age of this group is north of 32 years of age. Soriano will enter next season at 33. As I mentioned, only nine of the 41 contracts delivered full value, and only two of those were from players who started their contracts at age 34 or older.

But the fear with any reliever contract isn’t that they won’t live up to their contract, but that they will be catastrophic failures. B.J. Ryan, Scot Shields, David Riske and Jamie Walker are but a few names that come to mind. And there is always a chance that Soriano will be such a bust. Throughout his career, Soriano has either been effective or hurt. He broke through with the Mariners at age 22, and tossed 47 1/3 innings, making this his 11th big league season. In four of those seasons, he has failed to compile 40 innings. In six of the other seven, the lone exception being his rookie season, he posted above-average FIP- and ERA- figures. Among relievers with at least 200 innings pitched since 2009, Soriano’s 70 FIP- is tied with Jonathon Broxton for 10th-best. And therein lies the problem — few would suggest that Broxton would be worthy of an eight-figure pay this winter. Soriano himself, despite being 30 percent better than average the past four seasons, has never once been worth $10 million.

As a front office employee once told me, “It only takes one stupid team.” And perhaps, there will be one team foolish enough to sign Soriano to a long-term deal this offseason. Certainly the Yankees did once. But Soriano will be 33 next season, and while he has been healthy in three of the past four seasons, and has been one of the best relievers in the game, his checkered injury past should remain a red flag — particularly for one who would need a gaudy deal in order to opt out of his contract.

Soriano is a good pitcher, and if he opts out because the Yankees want to keep him around for a few more years at a salary commensurate with what he earned both this year and last, then opting out would be wise decision. But if his intent is to find a multi-year deal with an average annual value of $14 million, either he is going to very disappointed, or the team that signs him will be.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

26 Responses to “Should Rafael Soriano Opt Out?”

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  1. TKDC says:

    And presumably the Yanks would offer him a qualifying offer, so there’s that…

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    • Riley says:

      An interesting wrinkle to the qualifying offer that could backfire on the Yankees, at least in the sense it could make Soriano more costly.

      Just checking Soriano’s contract on Cots. If he elects to opt out, then the Yankees still have to pay him $1.5M. MLB recently announced that qualifying offers this offseason are expected to be just under $13.5M. The Yankees make the qualfying offer, Scott Boras (Soriano’s agent) turns right around and accepts it, in essence raising Soriano’s compensation in 2013 from $14M to $15M ($13.5+$1.5) without Soriano leaving his couch.

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  2. Fletch says:

    Please correct me if I’m off base, but can we give him credit for his ability to suppress BABIP? Over about 500 IP, he’s allowed a .250 BABIP. If one looks at his RA9 wins rather than just his fWAR (14.0 vs 9.1 over his career), a big contract might look a little less stupid, right?

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    • Eminor3rd says:

      Maybe a little. He’s still 33 and has an injury history. You can pay him for what he’s already done if you want to, but I think smart money is on paying him for what you think he is going to do going forward.

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      • joser says:

        But some of his injury history is getting hit by comebackers. Maybe you can characterize that as a problem (if his batted ball profile disproportionately results in line-drives up the middle) and maybe it’s just bad luck, but absent that he doesn’t seem a lot more injury-prone than many other pitchers. Arm problems that lead to the DL are always red flags, of course, so his elbow injury is worrisome; on the other hand, it doesn’t seem to be nagging him now.

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    • chuckb says:

      Reliever BABIP also tends to be lower than starter BABIP b/c relievers take advantage of platoon splits and short stints. Compare his BABIP (which is still probably relatively low) to other relievers, not to all other pitchers.

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  3. Ben says:

    He doesn’t need to find an AAV of $14M to make it a smart decision to opt out, just a deal with a big enough total value to offset the 2013 salary. If someone will give him 3/30M, opting out makes sense even though he’d *only* be making 10M a year.

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    • chuckb says:

      Right. He just has to end up with more than he believes he would receive when he’s a free agent next year. A 3 year contract worth X where X > $14 M + the sum of the salaries he’d receive in a 2 year deal signed next year.

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      • Preston says:

        If Rivera returns he won’t get saves next year. And teams seem to LOVE to pay for saves. So it’s probably smart for him to opt out.

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  4. BX says:

    I think opting out is a no-brainer. He’s not going to get less than the 14MM total over 1 year if he opts out. (remember, he gets a 1.5MM buyout for opting out).

    Opt out, take the buyout. If the Yankees make him a qualifying offer, accept, and ~13 + 1.5= ~14.5 MM.

    If the Yankees don’t make him a qualifying offer, test the market.

    Someone will pay him 14-15MM for one year if that’s all the year guarantee he wants. And if he wants a multi year deal, he’ll get 10MM a year pretty easily.

    And, his earning power diminishes if he stays with the Yankees for next year, since he won’t be closing next year since Mariano Rivera will be back in tow and closers are overvalued on the market.

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    • TKDC says:

      Good point – I did not realize he had the buyout (it’s weird to get a buy out for opting out). So there is a decent chance that this is sort of a game of chicken. Do the Yankees give him an offer thinking that he’s actually intent on testing the market?

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      • BX says:

        They should give him an offer anyway because its a win-win situation for them.

        Sure, Soriano is expensive, but a 1 year, 14MM commitment to an elite reliever when you’re the Yankees and perennially contending isn’t particularly bad. (and 2014, not 2013, is the year the Yanks are trying to get under the luxury tax).

        If he’s intent on testing the market, he’ll decline, which will put Soriano at an incredible handicap since he’ll cost a draft pick and draft picks are worth a lot more now.

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      • TKDC says:

        Best case scenario for yanks is he opts out and declines the qualifying offer. They save the money and get the draft pick. Second best is that he doesn’t opt out.

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  5. mcbrown says:

    Methodology question: how did you measure the difference between dollars paid and value received for reliever contracts?

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  6. RMD says:

    The important thing to a reliever is years rather than money. He’d be foolish not to opt out considering the savvy maneuver of putting those clauses there in the first place.

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  7. Anon says:

    I’m hesitant to value relievers based on fWAR (or any FIP based stat really). Sample size and a wider range of sustainable rates make the stat less representative of RP talent than probably any other position (even catchers).

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    • mcbrown says:

      Valuing relievers on WAR is questionable period, regardless of implementation. It is hardly a secret that relievers are “overpaid” on the basis of $/WAR, and yet elite relievers continue be highly paid, even sometimes in sophisticated organizations. I think it’s fairly obvious that $/WAR is not the right metric for evaluating reliever contracts, even if we don’t yet know what the right metric is.

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  8. Robbie G. says:

    Is it reasonable to assume that the Yankees will want to re-sign him to this projected three years, $30 mil contract, if he were to opt out? If Mariano Rivera returns, then they’re obviously set at closer, and David Robertson is clearly a dominant eighth inning/setup guy. Plus there is the obvious fact that giving a guy $30 mil to be a setup guy is idiotic; the Yankees made this mistake one time, surely they wouldn’t make it again (right?).

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  9. joser says:

    I wonder if he is one of those oddball relievers who only pitches his best in true save situations. If so, with Rivera presumed to be back in that role next year, it might be better for everybody if he opts out and becomes some other team’s actual closer.

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  10. downbythebay says:

    I liked the Scott Downs deal

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  11. Cidron says:

    His opting out success with the Yankees will be based on A) the recovery of Rivera, (as well as the immediate availability of him) and B) the presumed depth of the bullpen.

    Given that the Yankees will ease Rivera back (age and injury type), and bp depth is always considered volatile, even with proven arms, I think Soriano will be back, with a better deal.

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  12. Riley says:

    This is about guaranteed money, which is why he will most likely opt-out.

    As I noted above regarding the $1M gamble the Yankees will take if they offer Soriano a qualfying offer, the Yankees will owe Soriano $1.5M if he opts out, which basically means he’ll be leaving $12.5M on the table. He won’t get a one-year contract with an annual average of $12.5M, but he doesn’t have to. As Paul noted in his article, Soriano has had some injuries over the years, including as recently as 2011, something both Soriano and his agent know. He’s going to lose his closer position in 2013 if he stays with the Yankees. Would they rather take him to market as a 40+-save closer, or have him hit the market a year later one year older and as a 7th-inning set-up man?

    They’re going to capitalize on his season, take a lower annual average for 2013, but get more guaranteed money. It’s actually a pretty easy decision.

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    • casey says:

      but after the heath bell deal and all the busts for long term contracts as relievers the best he does is 3 yrs 25 mil i think, especially at his age. so if he takes the 14 next year and hits free agency after next year all he would have to do is make like 5 mill a year which he should be able to manage easily, so i say he shouldnt opt out because he will make up the bulk of his free ageny contract in the final year with the yanks

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