Commentary

No Mo? Then you gotta go to So

Because the job will be thankless, Soriano, not Robertson, is the man to replace Rivera

Updated: February 23, 2012, 8:58 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- The man who succeeds Mariano Rivera is going to have a tougher job than Bobby Murcer trying to replace Mickey Mantle, Tino Martinez trying to replace Don Mattingly, or Joe Girardi trying to replace Joe Torre.

That's because he won't just be following a great, he will be following the greatest ever. Think Larry Holmes trying to follow Muhammad Ali.

By definition, it is impossible to replace the irreplaceable, and assuming Rivera is entering the final season of his unparalleled career as the Yankees' closer, anyone who tries will be set up to fail. The position doesn't call for a pitcher so much as a sacrificial lamb.

That is why there is only one man currently on the Yankees' roster who is fit for the job.

Sorry, Sori. You draw the short straw.

By the numbers, by temperament and on merit, David Robertson is the best equipped pitcher on the Yankees' staff to be their next closer. Statistically, he had an even better 2011 than Mariano did. He has proven, time and again, that he will not rattle under pressure, especially when it is of his own making.

And, about to enter the second year of his apprenticeship as the Yankees' setup man, a move up to closer for the 2013 season seems the natural line of succession.

But the Yankees have high hopes for Robertson, who is 26, affordable ($1.6 million) and under team control for the next couple of years. There is no point in ruining him at this point in a still promising career by saddling him with the definition of Thankless Task.

No, that is a role made for Rafael Soriano, a former closer who will be entering the walk year of a contract that was ridiculous to begin with: Three years and $35 million for a setup man? With opt-outs after each of the first two years? Clearly, Scott Boras is a genius -- and is a player the Yankees can afford to throw to the wolves.

If Soriano succeeds, great; the Yankees can now overpay him to be their closer starting in 2014. And if he fails, well, nothing really lost, because odds were he was going to leave them at the end of his contract anyway. Now, at least his departure would be by mutual consent.

This is not meant to be read as a sign that I dislike Soriano or wish him ill. Quite the contrary; I find the guy to be interesting, even sympathetic. He carries himself in the clubhouse like a guy with a deep sadness that he dares not share with anyone.

He obviously was not thrilled with his original role here, as the eighth-inning guy, and only grew more glum and withdrawn as he saw his job usurped by Robertson and his role ever more marginalized.

"Last year was not easy for me," he told me on Tuesday. "The changing of the position to be the setup and all. This year should be better for me. At least I hope so."

[+] EnlargeRafael Soriano and Mariano Rivera
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIf anyone is going to be set up to fail in the post-Mariano Rivera era, let it be Rafael Soriano, not David Robertson.

I suspect he still sees himself as a closer -- he led the AL with 45 saves in 2010 as the closer for the Tampa Bay Rays -- and might be the only guy in the Yankees' clubhouse hoping that Rivera means what he was strongly hinting at Monday afternoon.

So why not give him a shot at true happiness by designating him the closer for 2013 -- again, assuming that the signals Rivera sent out were received correctly and he is, in fact, intending to call it quits after this year.

Soriano can either prove he belongs or prove he doesn't. As for Robertson, he will understand that it's better to be The Man Who Follows the Man Who Follows the Man. In fact, he already seems to get it.

"Those are big shoes. Those are shoes that I don't think anybody's ever gonna really be able to fill," he said in the Yankees' clubhouse Tuesday morning. "You're talking about replacing a guy like Mariano Rivera, that's something I don't know if it can ever be done. I just don't think so. You just gotta hope you can step in there and hold your ground and do as best you can and hope for the best."

By the numbers, Robertson was the best pitcher on the staff in 2011. In fact, it was no contest. He had the lowest ERA (1.08), the lowest opponent batting average (.169), the highest strikeout rate (13.5/9 IP) and was the most difficult pitcher to hit a home run off. He walked way too many batters, but that was part of the show, since it allowed him to do his almost-nightly "Houdini" escape act.

There is no earthly reason to take a pitcher this talented and with so bright a future and expose him to the wrath of what is sure to be a bloodthirsty post-Mariano Yankees fan base.

That is a job for Soriano, the human buffer who clears the way for Mariano's real successor.

"Right now I'm not thinking about that," Soriano said when he was asked if he would like the chance to succeed Rivera as the Yankees closer. "That would not be my decision, I work for the team. Whatever decision is going to be made, I'll be there. We'll see what happens. I'll wait for next year and see what happens."

Soriano should start thinking about it now, because if Rivera is planning to retire -- and I think he is -- then he's not just the best man for the job.

Logically speaking, he's the only man.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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