When ownership went over Brian Cashman’s head to sign Rafael Soriano before the 2011 season, the franchise was called foolish. That two opt outs were included in his contract heightened the criticism, which seemed sensible after the reliever’s first-year struggles in pinstripes. However, when Mariano Rivera was lost for the season in 2012, and Soriano stepped into the closer’s role without missing a beat, the Yankees no longer looked silly. Insurance policies always make more sense when you have to cash them in.
This off season, it was Soriano’s turn to have his decision making called into question. After opting out of the final year of his contract, the right hander also turned down the Yankees’ qualifying offer of approximately $13.3 million (which, combined with a $1.5 million buyout, would have brought his total earnings to just below $15 million). Then, he waited for the free agent suitors to come calling. The wait was much longer than he probably expected.
The market for closers was already lukewarm, but, with draft pick compensation tied to his acquisition, Soriano didn’t find a long line of general managers beating a path to his door. Had the reliever misjudged his worth? Perhaps he would have been better off accepting the Yankees’ one-year deal? Not only were these commonly asked questions in the media, but they probably crossed Soriano’s mind as well.
Scott Boras has mastered the waiting game. Instead of striking early in the winter, the agent prefers to bide his time, realizing it only takes one team to create a market. This year, however, it began to look as if Boras had made a costly miscalculation. It was even reported that he went back to the Yankees with his hat in hand, but was turned away without so much as a conversation. Many around baseball began to snicker at the much maligned agent. Until yesterday, that is, when Soriano and Boras had the last laugh. Or did they?
Soriano Contract Analysis
Note: Soriano received a $1.5 million buyout from the Yankees.
Source: Salary figures from Cots Contracts
Soriano’s deal with the Washington Nationals is for two years and $28 million, but, because half of the contract is deferred until 2018, the average annual value is $11.8 million. At first glance, that seems like a substantial pay cut from the $14 million he would have earned had he not opted out of his deal with the Yankees. However, when you add back the $1.5 million from the buyout, the difference is much less. In addition, Soriano now has the benefit of another guaranteed year as well as an automatic option worth $14 million that will kick in if he finishes 120 games over the first two years of the deal. Should he meet that threshold, the present day value of Soriano’s new contract would actually surpass the original amount of his deal with the Yankees by over $2 million.
There are many variables involved in evaluating Soriano’s decision. The likelihood of triggering the option is the most significant. Unfortunately for the reliever, the odds seem to be stacked against him. In his 11-year career, the right hander has never finished more than 56 games in a single season, so it seems unlikely he’ll be able to average 60 over the next two years. In fact, such a barrier would be formidable for any reliever. Since 2000, only a handful of pitchers has accomplished the feat in each period.
Based on the historical precedents, it seems fair to assume Soriano’s third year option will not be triggered, which makes his new deal with the Nationals worth about $24 million. Using that assumption, the question then becomes whether or not Soriano could have gotten at least $10 million in 2014 if he spent one more year in pinstripes?
With Mariano Rivera expected to resume the closer’s role in New York, the biggest threat to Soriano’s 2014 prospects would have been the relative obscurity of being a set-up man. Instead of coming off a season in which he recorded 42 saves under the bright lights of the big city, the righty would have hit the free agent market labeled an 8th inning guy. Even if he had a strong season performing this role, one he has never really relished, not having all those sparkling saves on his immediate resume probably would have hampered his negotiating position.
So, it looks like escaping from the Bronx was the best decision after all? Well, not so fast. What if Rivera was unable to regain his form? Under such a circumstance, Soriano might have been called upon to close again, and, a second consecutive season excelling in that role for the Yankees might have encouraged the team to make another long-term commitment. Granted, betting against Rivera isn’t a recipe for success, but Soriano could have benefitted regardless of the immortal closer’s health. After all, if Rivera enjoyed a full recovery, the Yankees most likely would not have given Soriano another qualifying offer in 2014, making the reliever more attractive to potential suitors. Without the added consideration of a lost drat pick, a team in need of a closer may have been willing to overlook Soriano’s 2013 set-up status and pay a premium based upon his past performance.
At $14 million per year, Soriano can boast of being the second highest paid reliever in baseball history, behind only Rivera’s $15 million salary earned from 2008 to 2012. Even in present value terms, his approximately $11.8 million AAV would rank seventh on the list. That’s not bad. Considering his advancing age and injury history, Soriano probably did well to tack on another guaranteed year of salary. He may have been expecting more when the winter began, but without much of a market for closers, it’s hard to complain.
Highest Paid Relievers In Baseball History
|Rafael Soriano AAV||$11.80||2013-2014|
Note: Dollar figures in millions.
Source: Cots Contracts
From the Yankees’ perspective, the opt-out also turned out for the best, assuming, of course, Rivera is healthy. Under the team’s new cost cutting regime, $14 million for a set-up guy is a luxury it can no longer afford. Also, the Yankees will get the benefit of a supplemental round draft pick as well as an increased signing budget it can allocate to a top-tier amateur player with signability issues, increasing the likelihood of obtaining an impact prospect. Losing Soriano’s services will undoubtedly weaken the team’s bullpen, but if the Yankees use the draft pick to acquire a real asset, it will be better off in the long run.
The Yankees, Soriano, and Boras should all be happy about how they parted company. And, the Nationals should be happy too, especially considering the way their 2012 season ended. If Soriano performs up to last year’s standard, he’ll be a key ingredient in the team’s pursuit of a World Series championship. Then, it wouldn’t matter how much Washington is paying him because the last, and loudest, laugh would be heard in the Nation’s Capital.