As the Derek Jeter contract negotiations degenerated into a very public he-said, she-said battle of egos, Mariano Rivera and his representation quietly went about the business of re-upping with the only team he has ever known.
The two sides soon agreed on a two-year, $30 million deal, the news made official via press release. Apparently, an awkward press conference where the player appeared to be wondering if he could choke his GM to death and get away with it was deemed unnecessary.
And while many in the media, and even Brian Cashman himself, questioned whether the 36-year-old Jeter still deserved superstar money, no one said a peep about Rivera, a man five years Jeter's senior who relies exclusively on a young man's pitch.
There will never be an Al Leiter-like reinvention of Mariano Rivera. You're not going to see Mo shaking off signs and battling through innings like Eddie Harris in Major League. Once Rivera's inimitable cutter goes, so too does the G.O.A.T.
Of course, how the two Yankee lifers performed in their walk years had a lot to do with how their contract negotiations played out. While Jeter was coming off the worst season of his career, Rivera had a year that was in many ways nearly identical to its predecessor.
The numbers tell the story:
Three things jump out at you here:
1. This guy is freaking amazing.
2. The disparity in saves proves how misleading that statistic can be. In this case, the Yankees played an inordinate amount of games in 2010 where they badly beat an opponent. Blowout victories mean less save chances. In fact, Rivera actually finished the same amount of games (55) in both '09 and '10. That tells you the Yankees were going to him in non-save situations just to get him work.
3. OK, this is the one where the pitchforks come out. If you watched Rivera last season, you saw subtle signs of slippage.
(Ducking Molotov cocktails)
Let me explain. It wasn't anything that could be seen on the surface, but Rivera didn't possess the same ability to overpower an opponent. This is evident in the strikeout totals, which dipped significantly. Rivera's 6.8 K/9 ratio was at its lowest point in three years, dropping three full strikeouts from the year before.
That's not to take anything away from Rivera's '10 season, which was magnificent and in some ways better than the year before. But in his ability to make batters miss, he wasn't nearly as dominant. As unique as Mo is, you can't expect that to get better given his age.
Enter Rafael Soriano. The reliever had a breakout 2010 season with the Rays, just in time to hit free agency. With Kerry Wood taking a discount to return to the Cubs, the Yankees have a glaring need for an eighth-inning guy and also the $140M earmarked for Cliff Lee just burning a hole through their pocket.
If I'm the Yankees, I'm on the phone with Soriano's agent yesterday.
"Brian Cashman here. OK, full disclosure: We can't give you the closer's job...at least not now. But we can give you a four-year deal that pays you like the best closer in the league. We see you as Mariano's setup man, but we also envision you getting save chances since we don't plan on using Mo in back-to-back days and we can't rule out the possibility that he misses time due to injury. You will be both his understudy and successor."
It's a good pitch, but I'm not sure it works. The personality type of a closer—Rivera being a notable exception—oozes more machismo than Razor Ramon. These guys like to be El Hombre. It's entirely probable that Soriano's first prerequisite for a prospective suitor (other than being willing to hand over gobs of money) is that he be the hero in the back of the 'pen.
But it's worth kicking the tires on anyway. There were reports earlier Thursday that the Yankees were doing just that, but later we were being told New York wasn't interested. I think that's a mistake, for all the reasons I've brought up above, but also this: If the Yankees aren't going to have a dominant rotation—and lord Jesus, it's not looking that way—they should be doing everything in their power to put together a lights-out bullpen.
As we learned way back in 1996, being able to shorten a game to seven innings has the knack of turning a merely good team into a championship one.
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