Mariano Rivera wouldn't be one of the best closers of all time if he didn't have a sense of the moment.
Telling the New York Yankees that he is going to return next season a week after the World Series ended, rather than drag it through November and December—or even worse, up until spring training—was certainly the best move for him and his team.
Rivera will be back to pitch his 19th season in the major leagues, determined to leave the game on his own terms rather than crumpled on the warning track of Kauffman Stadium after tearing the ACL in his right knee on May 3.
Though the Yankees are surely thrilled to have their closer back—the man with 608 saves, the most in MLB history—Rivera is going to be 43 years old when the Yankees report to Tampa next spring. His arm will likely be fresher after basically having a year off, but the question might be worth asking: Can Rivera be as good as Rafael Soriano was this season?
I know, I know—I didn't even feel right typing that last sentence out.
I can hear the screams from Yankees fans. "Troll! You're trolling!" I can hear palms slapping foreheads and desks being cleared of all papers, keyboards, monitors and other such items. The idea of Rivera no longer being an elite closer, of someone else being better, seems outrageous.
But let's see if there's any merit to this.
After finally getting the closer job this past season, Soriano racked up 42 saves for the Yankees with a 2.26 ERA. He struck out 69 batters in 67.2 innings versus 24 walks. That averages out to 9.2 strikeouts and 3.2 walks per nine innings.
Does Rivera have another season like that in him?
Consider that the 42-year-old veteran saved 44 games for the Yankees in 2011. That team also won 97 games, while the 2012 edition of the Yanks won 95.
Rivera finished with a 1.91 ERA last season. Pitching 61.1 innings, he struck out 60 batters and walked eight. That resulted in a strikeout rate of 8.8 per nine innings and 1.2 walks per game.
Yes, Soriano strikes out more batters—barely. He had nine more strikeouts in 2012 than Rivera did in 2011, though he also pitched 7.2 more innings. Had Rivera pitched eight more frames, would he have compiled 69 strikeouts or more? Probably not. But that doesn't mean his skills are diminishing.
For one thing, Rivera was pitching well before he hurt his knee. We only have nine games to go on, which isn't much of a sample. But Rivera notched five saves and struck out eight batters in 8.1 innings. In other words, it was business as usual for him.
As mentioned above, Soriano walked 24 batters this year. Rivera has never issued that many walks in a season since becoming a closer. That covers the past 16 years.
The last time Rivera threw that many walks was when the Yankees projected him as a starting pitcher or he set up for John Wetteland. Over his career, he has averaged 2.0 walks per nine innings, nearly one fewer walk per game than Soriano, who's averaged 2.9.
Is it risky to assume that Rivera can resume his level of performance at the age of 43 and coming off a major injury? Yes, but everything about Rivera indicates that the man is a machine. We keep waiting for that one season where it all falls apart for him, and it hasn't happened.
Rivera has had some seasons that weren't as good as others. In 2007, he had a 3.15 ERA. He blew five save opportunities in 2010 and 2011. But he also converted a combined 77 saves in those two seasons. Any team would love to have those numbers from its closer.
Soriano has only been a closer in three of his 11 seasons. And in one of those seasons, Rivera and David Robertson had to get hurt for him to get the job. Even with some doubts about age and injury, the Yankees know what they'll get in Rivera. With Soriano, the hope is that he pitches as well next year as he did in 2012.
The Yankees will be just fine with Rivera as their closer next season. They won't regret not giving that role to Soriano at all.
But will their bullpen be as good without Soriano pitching in a setup role? As I argued in a previous article, I think the Yankees' relief corps would have been all right without Soriano and Rivera.
David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain should form an strong setup crew. They'll be joined by David Aardsma, who will be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery. Boone Logan and Clay Rapada are fine against left-handed hitting. David Phelps probably will take the swing role of long reliever and spot starter.
The Yankees could also pick up some low-cost options in free agency. Former Kansas City Royals closer Joakim Soria is coming off reconstructive surgery on his right elbow and would be a low-risk, high-reward addition to the bullpen. Brian Wilson fits this category as well.
Yet it still comes down to Rivera. Is he capable of pitching as well as Soriano did this season? Yes, he is. But the luxury for the Yankees is that they don't need Rivera to do so. They just need him to pitch the same way he always has. And if he's not, the bullpen has the depth to cover for him.
Rivera will get the final season and victory tour he deserves in 2013. And the Yankees will have their closer.
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