The Yankees and future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera have agreed to a two-year deal worth $30 million. According to some reports, Rivera actually turned down a more lucrative deal from either the Angels or, of all teams, the Boston Red Sox.
The knee jerk assumption is that the Red Sox offer was merely a means to drive up the price on the Yankees, and that very well could be the case. If you really think about it, however, stealing Mo would have struck the perfect blow and dramatically shifted the balance of power in the AL East, especially because the Yankees currently have no alternative and the market is void of an adequate replacement. From Boston’s perspective, it could have offset some of Rivera’s contract by trading Jonathan Papelbon, who is on schedule for another raise above his $9.4 million salary as he prepares for a big free agent contract next offseason. Even at Rivera’s advanced age, it isn’t a stretch to think he’ll out perform Papelbon over the next three years, so having him hold the spot for Bard would have represented the best of both worlds for Boston. And, if Papelbon’s poor 2010 was more systemic than an aberration, the benefit increases exponentially. What’s more, by trading Papelbon, the Red Sox could have netted significant prospects, whom they then could have used to pry Justin Upton away from the Diamondbacks.
Another factor to consider is the psychological blow that would have been inflicted upon the Yankees. Rivera has truly been a one-of-a-kind closer, so even with time to prepare, the organization is going to struggle during the transition to a mere a mortal. Now, imagine the panic if Rivera’s valuable right arm was suddenly removed from the team and placed in the bullpen at Fenway Park? With Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner sounding more and more like Red Sox’ executives who have driven away countless team legends (from Carlton Fisk to Wade Boggs to Roger Clemens to Pedro Martinez and then some), maybe Theo Epstein thought Rivera might be ripe for the picking? If any team knows about the overarching impact of losing a legend to your rival, it’s the Red Sox.
Because Rivera decided to turn down a larger offer from Boston (kind of like Bernie Williams did after the 1998 season), his loyalty is likely to be lauded…and with good reason. Unfortunately, you can also bet many of those same people praising Rivera will use his fiscal modesty against the negotiating position of Derek Jeter, who was initially offered a three-year, $45 million deal that has reportedly been sweetened. However, the opposite side of that argument may be just as true. After all, if the Yankees are willing to pay a “41-year old closer” $15 million per year, shouldn’t they be willing to offer an everyday shortstop significantly more?
Ironically, when Mariano Rivera opted for arbitration before the 2000 season, his agent’s main argument was the All Star closer was at least as valuable as Jeter, who was earlier given a $10 million deal. The Yankees disagreed at the time, citing Jeter’s off-field economic contributions as the main reason why he was paid more money. So, unless the Yankees thinking on that has changed, the $15 million award for Rivera seems to demand that a higher figure be offered to Jeter.
Of course, one could argue that the reason Jeter’s value has declined and Rivera’s has not is because of their relative on-field performance. However, that argument is hard to make from a purely statistical standpoint. After all, despite having the worst season of his career, Jeter’s WAR was still 2.5, according to fangraphs.com. By comparison, Rivera, who had an outstanding season, checked in at only 1.7 (his best season was 3.3). Granted, WAR has many flaws for such an evaluation, but it does at least raise an interesting question. At the current stages of their careers, who provides the Yankees with more value?
Because we rely can’t rely on the stats to provide an answer, the question kind of forces us back into the realm of the psychological, or the intangible, if you will. Needless to say, that’s not a playing field the Yankees want to be on in a battle against Jeter. Presumably, these difficult to quantify elements factored into the Red Sox (or Angels) offer to Rivera, so who is to say some other team won’t do the same in a push to sign Jeter? Most observers, and even the Yankees’ front office, seem to think the Hall of Fame shortstop has no other alternative, but nothing can be gained by finding out.
Loyalty is a two-way street, and in this instance, it has led one Yankees’ legend back into the fold. Hopefully, Jeter and the organization aren’t too far down the road.