I hate to say it, but Mariano Rivera is probably going to retire after the 2012 season. No, he hasn’t said as much and the 42-year-old future Hall of Famer has more lives than your average middle reliever. But the always quiet, humble, politically correct Rivera has been dropping hint after hint for the past month.
Rivera claims to have made a decision, definitively, as to whether he will pitching in 2013. He also indicated earlier this week that he’d likely make an announcement at some point prior to the All-Star break and that should he decide (well, should he have already decided) to retire he’d like to give fans around baseball the chance to say goodbye. As Rivera told Kevin Kernan of the New York Post:
It would be nice that you tell the fans, so every stadium you go to, the fans will be there to show their appreciation and you appreciate the fans.
If Rivera wanted to he could probably pitch another five years. He could probably save 700 games. But as we wait for the beginning of another season of baseball, he seems to be saying that this is his last. If Rivera does retire he’ll leave a gapping whole at the back of the Yankees’ bullpen for the first time since the early 1990s. And while several candidates have been mentioned in conjuncture with the closers role going forward, David Robertson stands out as the almost inevitable choice.
For the first time since Mariano Rivera took the league by storm in 1996, the Yankees have perhaps the best setup man in baseball. At 26, soon to be 27, Robertson’s nasty fastball-curveball-changeup combination needs no introduction. In 70 appearances last season he struck out 100 batters and walked just 35. His 1.08 ERA was the best in the American League. So were his 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings. Robertson has been a Yankee since 2008, making 204 appearances with the team and sporting an impressive 3.03 ERA. In fact, even prior to last season, the signs were there that D-Rob was capable of an expanded role. How many pitchers can strikeout well over a batter an inning? The control will never be superb, but when you strand 80 or 90 percent of base runners, who cares?
Yet despite all Robertson has going for him – his stuff, his age, his relatively cheap price-tag, his 2011 season – he does present the Yankees with a problem. How can Brian Cashman balance volatility and the potentially crippling cost of an out of control relief market? Robertson will make a measly 1.6 million dollars in 2012. But as an arbitration eligible player in 2013 and 2014 his salary is almost certain to increase. If he does claim the closers role next season, he could be making a substantial sum of money by 2014, exactly when the Yankees wish to get their payroll below 189 million dollars. And a 30-year-old free agent with a year or two closing games in the Bronx is liable to cost quite a bit of money.
That, in a nut shell, is the lucky problem the Yankees find themselves dealing with in regards to David Robertson. If Robertson were entering his second season in the big leagues cost would be far from a concern. If he were a year away from free agency the Yankees would likely not hesitate to begin contract talks or at the very least, would have little to lose in waiting. But Roberton’s future, potentially as the Yankees closer, and this front offices’ desire to get payroll under control could come into direct conflict by 2014. Just as Robertson elevates his value by assuming ninth inning duties, he would be presented with several opportunities to escalate his salary.
As it stands, the Yankees have several options.
If David Robertson were to be anointed the closer of the future, a reasonable argument could be constructed as to why the Yankees should sign him to a long term contract as soon as possible. While Brian Cashman is always hesitant to negotiate with players under team control, Robertson is a special case. His value now, as a middle reliever on a team full of middle relievers, is manageable. His value in two or three years may not be. If he does assume the closers role and pitch well he could make himself tens of millions of dollars, yet an extension now could save the Yankees money and give Robertson security in knowing he will be inherit the ninth inning and the financial stability that comes with it.
But this scenario is not terribly realistic. A long term extension buying out free agent years would constitute, at the very least, a four or five years contract. Giving that kind of deal to anything but the best and most consistent middle relievers would be tremendously foolish. Robertson has the talent but not quite the track-record to be considered anywhere near that tier. Giving him a long term contract now would not be quite so foolish as handing the same kind of deal to Jose Veras several seasons ago (Veras was never THIS good) but the very comparison should show why patience is key. Until it is clear that Robertson is the Yankees closer going forward, no long term extension is sane. And even then signficant caution must be taken.
At the other extreme, the Yankees could simply wait until Roberton’s contract expires, evaluate whether they need his services going forward, and if they do, pay him way more money than he’s worth to stay with the team going forward. This is essentially how the Yankees negotiate contracts and sometimes it works quite well. But while Major League Baseball is not a salary cap league, the luxury tax threshold is the next closest thing and with a frugal Steinbrener heir at the helm, the Yankees can’t afford to be reckless. Compare Dustin Pedroia’s contract with the one the Yankees will be forced to give Robinson Cano. The Yankee way isn’t always the only way. Or, at the very least, sometimes it needs a bit of modification.
And while it’s possible someone else, let’s say Joba Chamberlain, inherits ninth inning duties, no other candidate is nearly as qualified as Robertson. Chamberlain and Phil Hughes have much lesser track-records and Rafael Soriano is not a long term option. Unless someone emerges as a clear alternative in the next 12 months, ignoring the inevitability of Robertson’s eventual ascension would be foolish. The only reasonable argument presented in favor of another candidate is that Robertson is too valuable to be restricted to the ninth inning. But, of course, that never stopped Rivera.
What reasonable scenario then lies in between these two extremes, both reckless and likely unreasonable? How can the Yankees manage cost without committing, in the long run, to a player who is inherently volatile?
No answer is likely to be entirely satisfactory. Robertson is going to cost more than the Yankees want and there is likely going to be some acceptance of risk. Mariano Rivera’s come around once in the lifetime of a baseball fan, if that often, and we will not always have the luxury of consistency and dependability at the back of the bullpen. Eventually we will have to overpay and accept risk.
But this can be minimized. The Yankees need to decide over the next year whether they want to commit to David Robertson going forward. If they do, and assuming Rivera does retire at the end of this season, they need to swallow their pride. They need to agree to a four or so year extension with Robertson after this season, buying out for a reasonable price two arbitration years and the same number of free agent years. If another option presents itself, the Yankees may bite. At this point, though, the transition seems clear. Managing cost is the major barrier that must be overcome.
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