Is the New York Yankees bullpen in trouble now?
As reported by multiple outlets, including The Star-Ledger's Andy McCullough, reliever Rafael Soriano opted out of the final year of his contract with the Yankees on Wednesday (Oct. 31). He'll take a $1.5 million buyout rather than the $14 million he would have been paid for 2013.
Obviously, Soriano and agent Scott Boras think the closer can get more on the free-agent market. Boras said as much to the New York Post's Joel Sherman nearly two weeks ago.
The mega-agent surely felt even more strongly about Soriano's market value after the Los Angeles Dodgers re-signed Brandon League to a three-year, $22.5 million contract. In a depressed market for closers, Soriano's 42 saves with 69 strikeouts in 67.1 innings look spectacular.
Reportedly, Soriano and Boras are looking for a four-year deal. According to CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, Yankees president Randy Levine said Boras told Soriano that he could get $60 million over four years on the open market. The Yanks are willing to let the reliever shop himself around the league for that deal.
But where does this leave the Yankees bullpen, especially in light of the news that Mariano Rivera is having second thoughts about coming back next season and may indeed retire?
As it stands right now, David Robertson would probably take over as the closer. He's the Yankees' best reliever, posting a 2.67 ERA in 65 appearances. He also compiled 81 strikeouts in 60.2 innings, which averages out to 12 K's per nine frames.
Robertson briefly stepped into the closer role after Rivera tore the ACL in his right knee and was lost for the season.
He appeared in the ninth inning four times following Rivera's injury, converting one of two save opportunities. But he soon suffered a strained left oblique that kept him out for a month. That created an opening for Soriano.
Would the Yankees pitch Joba Chamberlain in the ninth inning? He appeared in 22 games after recovering from an open dislocation of his right ankle suffered during spring training. Chamberlain finished with a 4.35 ERA in 20.2 innings. With 22 strikeouts and six walks, he certainly has the strikeout stuff a team usually wants in a closer.
Robertson and Chamberlain would make a formidable back-end of the bullpen regardless of who pitches as the closer and who works as the setup man. But that leaves a hole in middle relief.
Boone Logan could pitch as the seventh-inning reliever since he does equally well against left-handed and right-handed hitting. Overall, he struck out 11.1 batters per nine innings.
Clay Rapada might be better suited as the left-handed specialist anyway, since lefties hit .186 against him in 115 plate appearances.
David Phelps would presumably take the swing role, pitching in long relief and as a spot starter when needed. However, the Yankees might decide to put him in the rotation depending on whether or not Andy Pettitte opts to retire and who the team might pursue in free agency.
That leaves right-hander Cody Eppley as the other remaining reliever. He had a 3.33 ERA in 59 appearances, but isn't a strikeout arm with 32 K's in 46 innings.
Another possibility to be the Yankees closer or setup reliever is David Aardsma, who missed almost all of this season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. But the Yanks picked up his option for 2013, which presumably means they envision a role for him in their bullpen.
Aardsma saved 69 games from 2009 to 2010, while also averaging 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings.
But will the Yankees stand pat with their bullpen through the offseason. It seems unlikely. While they might not go after a reliever to replace Soriano as the closer, they could pursue another arm for depth.
Joakim Soria is available after the Kansas City Royals declined his 2013 option. He missed all of last season due to reconstructive surgery on his right elbow. But Soria was one of the best closers in the AL in his previous five seasons, averaging 32 saves per year and nearly 10 strikeouts per nine innings.
The Yankees could sign him to a one-year deal, during which Soria works his way back and shows he's healthy again. If he has a good year, he can cash in after next season as a free agent.
Of course, the Yanks can always bring back Soriano. Though it appears they have no intention of giving him a four-year deal, if Soriano and Boras can't find that kind of contract on the market, they could return to the Yankees on a one- or two-year contract with a slight raise over the $14 million he was to make this year.
While not having Rivera or Soriano appears to be a significant blow to the Yankees, they do have options to fill those late-inning roles in their bullpen. As it is, the team has been overpaying for relievers for years. The three-year, $35 million contract that Soriano just opted out of was the latest example.
So maybe this is the year general manager Brian Cashman plays it cool with pursuing a reliever and decides to devote the Yankees' resources toward an outfielder and/or starting pitcher. Considering the relievers available on the free-agent market, it might just be worth a try.
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