1:31 pm Nov. 9, 2012
The New York Yankees seemed to have their closer situation settled early this week, when Mariano Rivera told the team he intended to return in 2013. But it's not that simple.
Rivera, you see, is a free agent this winter. So the Yankees need to make an offer to keep Rivera at a level Rivera is comfortable with.
However, the Yankees are reticent about offering Rivera the same $15 million he made in 2012, playing out the final season of a two-year, $30 million deal. The plan is to offer a pay cut in base salary, with incentives that can earn Rivera as much as he made last season.
For the Yankees, this is a very dangerous game. The drop from Rivera to someone else, if negotiations go wrong, is potentially either a dramatic fall in performance, or very costly, or both.
Their hesitance is easy to reasonable, in the abstract. What team shouldn't be concerned about the performance of a 43-year-old pitcher who just missed a season due to injury?
But Rivera is no typical 43-year-old. Prior to the freak non-pitching injury he sustained shagging fly balls, Rivera had been virtually indestructible. And more astonshing still, he was one of the best closers ever in his 20s, then got better in his 30s, then better still in his 40s.
So leave aside questions like rewarding Rivera's service, or bringing back a fan favorite. Rivera's a great bet to be one of the premier closers in the game in 2013.
Rivera is likely to ask for, and receive, a one-year deal. Any other closer the Yankees bring in even approaching Rivera's ability, such as last season's replacement, Rafael Soriano, will require a multi-year commitment.
That's a problem, not only because relief pitchers tend to have more ups and downs in performance than starting pitchers or everyday players, but also because the Yankees intend to get payroll at or below $189 million in 2014, to avoid a large increase in luxury tax penalties. A one year deal to Rivera doesn't affect that pursuit. A three-year deal to Rafael Soriano certainly does.
Incidentally, Soriano can make this moot by accepting the one-year, $13.3 million qualifying offer the Yankees gave him (to insure draft pick compensation if he signs elsewhere). Soriano has until 5 p.m. today to do so. But he almost certainly won't, since he's likely to earn roughly that much per season on a multi-year deal elsewhere.
The pickings are slim for free agent closers after that, both limiting the upside of any non-Riveras the Yankees would bring in and driving up the price for those pitchers at the same time.
And it is easy to imagine any number of teams willing to line up with a two-year deal for Mariano Rivera. The Yankees are still the overwhelming favorite to retain him, but franchise icons have left for other teams before.
To save a couple of million dollars, and only in the event Rivera breaks down again, just doesn't make any sense for the Yankees. They have a chance to give Rivera what he's asking for and be done with it. And matching his 2012 salary, for a one-year commitment, is extremely reasonable.