All winter, Brian Cashman has taken his lumps for patiently biding his time during the off season. However, those criticism were nothing compared to harsh rebukes he has received in the hours since John Heyman announced that the Yankees had signed Rafael Soriano.
Before delving into the wisdom of the signing, the pink elephant in the room is Cashman’s earlier insistence that the Yankees would not surrender a first round pick for any free agent not named Cliff Lee. So, either Cashman was holding his cards close to the vest (i.e., lying), had a serious change of heart, or was overruled by another in the organization.
If Cashman was being deceptive, well, good for him. His chief responsibility is to make the Yankees better, so if that means throwing up a smoke screen or two, so be it. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see where the Yankees benefitted from an improved negotiation position, but then again, the full details of the contract and pursuant negotiations have not been revealed. Nonetheless, a general managers’ commandments are made to be broken when the right (or sometimes wrong) deal comes along. Just ask Bubba Crosby.
As mentioned, the exact terms of the Soriano contract have not yet been divulged, so in the details may be the reason why Cashman did an about face from his earlier vow. Maybe he believed that Soriano would return to the Rays at a discount, or sign with a wild card competitor? Perhaps further evaluation of the draft revealed less than promising prospects for the 31st pick? Maybe it was Andy Pettitte’s latest display of indecision that pushed his hand? Or, it could be that Cashman has other contingent moves in place (e.g., moving Joba Chamberlain back to the rotation, or a trade that involves the team’s now impressive bullpen depth)? Regardless, just because Cashman changed his mind doesn’t mean he panicked.
The third option is the one that is cause for real concern. In his daily column, Buster Olney hinted at a divide within the Yankees organization, while Peter Gammons tweeted that Randy Levine was the driving force behind the signing. Even Mariano Rivera has been credited with holding sway. If true, that could be disastrous for the Yankees. Whether you like Cashman or not, the Yankees have seemed to benefit from having one coherent voice on baseball-related matters, so a return to the days of front office factions could have undesirable consequences. I am sure more on that topic will be written in the coming days, but usually when there’s an early leak, there’s also an unhappy general manager.
Putting aside the intrigue behind the Yankees’ change in course, let’s now return to an examination of the player and the contract (for a concise rundown of how the Yankees blogosphere has reacted to the deal, check out Bronx Banter). The biggest criticism of the deal has dealt with the fact that Soriano does not address the team’s greatest weakness, which, of course, is the starting rotation. But, should that really make a difference? The Yankees did not get Cliff Lee, nor were they able to trade for Zack Greinke or Matt Garza. Nothing can change that reality, and there are no apparent acquisition targets capable of filling the resulting void.
Instead of focusing on a cadre of has-beens, also-rans, and could-bes, the Yankees instead decided to bolster the backend of the bullpen with a bonafide quality reliever. Granted, the contract, which at $11.7 million per year makes Soriano the third highest paid reliever in the game, seems exorbitant, but should that matter to anyone but the Yankees’ accountants? After all, just because he will be paid closer money doesn’t mean he won’t be very valuable pitching in the eighth inning. When you are a billion dollar franchise in an offseason when no one else will take your money, you can afford that kind of luxury.
Another knock on the contract stems from the fact that Soriano has had Tommy John surgery, but since undergoing the procedure in 2004, he bounced back with healthy seasons in four of the last five. In 2008, however, Soriano missed most of the season and eventually required another elbow surgery, so the risk is definitely real. But, again, that’s really a financial concern.
Statistically speaking, it’s nearly impossible to justify the monetary terms of the contract, so once you get past that hang-up, the bottom line becomes that the Yankees are a better team with Soriano than without. Even if one wanted to boil down the addition in terms of value added, it could be argued that if he pitches as he did in 2010, Soriano would come close to approximating the contribution that would be lost if Andy Pettitte does in fact retire. Also, in addition to giving the Yankees one of the major’s best bullpens, it also provides the team more flexibility, both in terms of whom they can move into the rotation and how much rest they can afford Rivera. There is a domino effect at play, and although the benefits don’t trickle down enough to match a $12 million outlay, the addition of Soriano does strengthen the team.
Perhaps the most legitimate criticism of the deal centers around losing the 31st pick in the 2011 Rule IV draft. It should be noted, however, that the Yankees still have a supplemental round pick thanks to the departure of Javier Vazquez. So, if the draft really is as deep as many experts have suggested, the Yankees should still have enough quality selections to replenish their farm system.
Finally, much has been made of Soriano’s opt out clauses, which allow him to terminate the deal after the first two seasons AND be paid a $1.5 million buyout for his troubles. Although this may seem to be a very one-sided perk, it actually gives the Yankees an out in the event that Soriano has a terrific 2011 season. Because the contract is end-loaded, it isn’t likely that Soriano’s future performance would ever surpass his salary, so if the right hander were to allow his ego to send him back into the free agent market, the Yankees would be freed of the risk associated with the length of the deal. In other words, the Yankees would wind up with one great year from Soriano and Type-A free agent compensation, which means they’d swap one draft pick for two. Should that happen, the Yankees’ end of the bargain would look much better, which is exactly why the opt outs are probably more in their best interest than Soriano’s (i.e., it provides him with a temptation that isn’t likely to work toward his benefit).