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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.