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Thursday, January 17, 2013
One way or another, Yanks will pay

By Johnette Howard
ESPNNewYork.com

So this, of all things, is the most surprising financial line in the sand that the Yankees stubbornly refuse to jump over with just 25 days left before spring training? The Yankees balked at paying to keep a lights-out closer? The Yankees? Of all people?

I'm not referring to 43-year-old Mariano Rivera -- whom the Yankees did choose to pay $10 million plus incentives for the 2013 season as he tries to come back from ACL surgery.

Rafael Soriano
The Yankees let Rafael Soriano, who had 42 saves in 2012, go to the Washington Nationals.

I'm talking about Rafael Soriano, whom the Yankees let walk on Wednesday rather than match or exceed the two-year, $28-million deal he got from the Washington Nationals -- even though the Yanks wouldn't have even sniffed the playoffs without the 42 saves that Soriano amassed in Rivera's place last season.

The Yankees don't act like the big-spending, whatever-it-takes Yankees anymore. General manager Brian Cashman has been warning us for months that they wouldn't. He's reiterated that he has to get the budget under $189 million. And other people in baseball have winked and said sure, we believe you. Then they keep waiting for the Yanks to jump in on B.J. Upton, or nibble around the edges of the Josh Hamilton talks before that. But if letting Soriano move on doesn't convince Cashman's doubters that backsliding to the Yanks' old ways ain't going to happen, then nothing will.

The Yankees' decision to pass on Soriano drips with irony because having Rivera as their security blanket is generally considered the most indispensable part of their dynastic run to four titles in five years under Joe Torre. Rivera's brilliance was a constant during their streak of making the playoffs for 16 of the 17 seasons he's been with the team.

So why not just keep Soriano too?

Since when did the Yankees ever worry about having an embarrassment of riches or a little redundancy on the roster? Since when was hoarding talent not standard operating procedure?

What was the big deal about coming off their preference for a one-year deal and giving Soriano another year at $14 million in 2014 too?

Sure, Robinson Cano is coming up for a big payday. Alex Rodriguez may never again earn his salary, and the same may soon be true about Mark Teixeira. The Yanks also have to decide whether to keep or bid on pending free agent Curtis Granderson. But we're still only talking about one more year of Soriano. And the Yanks already lost 40-some homers by letting Russell Martin and Nick Swisher walk.

Does anyone think Rivera is a lock to still be playing two years from now at age 44, even if he is great this year? I sure don't. Does anyone think David Robertson is the sure-fire answer as his successor? No. Robertson looks better as a set-up man.

Could Cashman simply not justify guaranteeing Rivera $4 million less than Soriano in 2013 after all Rivera has done for the franchise?

This must at least partly explain the Yankees' decision too: As much as we make fun of Yanks manager Joe Girardi for managing by The Binders, Cashman has migrated toward a more sabermetric approach as well. Girardi already manages the bullpen by committee. By letting Soriano walk, the Yankees (coincidentally or not) are more in line with the growing noise in the sabermetric community that says closers are overvalued.

But that only brings us to another irony: Boston -- which employs Bill James, the father of the sabermetric movement and author of its first bible, the Baseball Abstract -- went out and traded for the Pirates' All-Star closer, Joel Hanrahan, just before Christmas, did they not?

Letting Soriano walk is another place where Cashman can save some money and update the Yanks' decision making to reflect a more data-driven approach -- this though the last 17 years of their existence argues strongly against the decision that Cashman just made.

Fascinating, right?

It's a risk.

Once you subtract Soriano from the payroll, the rest of the Yankees' bullpen looks like an absolute bargain after Rivera.

Robertson, who made $1.6 million last season, is eligible to be a free agent after 2014, Boone Logan earned a manageable $1.875 million, and both just filed for arbitration this week and are seeking to have their 2013 salaries bumped up a bit. But neither of them will break the bank.

If The Boss was still around, he'd probably roar that Cashman better damn well be right about all this.

Hal Steinbrenner -- Son of Boss -- seems to be perfectly content to see Cashman go to spring training with the modest tweaks he's so far made to the team.

Soriano's 42 saves didn't matter as much as the $189 million target payroll number. Soriano's stat line and the risk of banking on Rivera to bounce back was overshadowed by the payroll bottom line.

But will the Yankees pay in a different way, by falling a few places in standings? Toronto has added some impressive pieces. Baltimore looks re-invigorated. The Red Sox haven't imposed an embargo on spending as a show of solidarity toward the Yankees. When you look beyond the AL East, the Angels, the Rangers, and the Tigers all look better than the Yankees too.

Will the Yanks may come to regret ignoring their own recent history swung so much on Rivera's brilliance?

Will the Yanks pay dearly for not behaving anymore like the Yanks?

Just 25 days to go before spring training. The financial line in the sand remains drawn. This sort of gambit is hard to get used to.

But it's fascinating, right?