When Mariano Rivera suffered a season-ending knee injury in May, the 42-year-old closer was quick to quell fears that his torn anterior cruciate ligament had cut short a potential farewell tour. He vowed to return to the Yankees in 2013: "I'm coming back. Write it down in big letters. I'm not going down like this. God willing and given the strength, I'm coming back."
By all accounts, Rivera has rehabbed his surgically repaired knee diligently, but now the possibility exists that he may instead opt for retirement. On Wednesday, New York manager Joe Girardi conceded that the all-time save leader's return was not a given, and on Thursday, general manager Brian Cashman confirmed that Rivera had not finalized his plans for 2013: "I talked to Mariano Tuesday night, and he is not sure what he's interested in doing just yet."
The news comes at a time when the Yankees are still smarting from being swept by the Tigers in the ALCS, a stunning defeat that made the team look old and fragile. As Cashman and company face a future with an aging core and an increasing number of drags on payroll, the return of a soon-to-be-43-year-old closer coming off injury appears to be more about sentiment rather than forward thinking about the franchise's best interests. The Yankees should still welcome Rivera back should he decide to return, but Cashman is better off planning for the likelihood that he won't, and outfitting New York's bullpen accordingly.
That plan is complicated by the fact that Rafael Soriano, who ably filled the ninth-inning role in Rivera's absence, has an opt-out clause in his contract. The righty, who turns 33 in December, stands to make $14 million in the final season of his three-year, $35 million deal — the second-highest rate annual rate for a closer behind Rivera — but, fresh off a 42-save season, he has the chance to secure an even bigger payday, whether in the Bronx or elsewhere.
For as good a job as Soriano did, it is perhaps an oversimplification to say that the Yankees didn't miss Rivera. They did finish with the American League's best record at 95-67, while Soriano posted a 2.26 ERA and converted 89 percent of his save opportunities (42 out of 47). That's a comparable rate of conversion to the latter-day Rivera, who since turning 40 — a stretch covering the 2010-2012 seasons — has converted 88 percent of his save opportunities (82 out of 93).
Where Rivera's absence stands out, in retrospect, is the postseason. Soriano pitched just three times and didn't get a single save, though he threw 4 1/3 scoreless innings. In part, that's because the Yankees' starting pitching was so strong; in their first seven games, every starter lasted at least 6 2/3 innings, with all but Phil Hughes pitching into the eighth inning in the Division Series against the Orioles. Three times in the Division Series, Yankee starters pitched into the ninth: CC Sabathia threw 8 2/3 innings in Game 1, Hiroki Kuroda lasted 8 1/3 innings in Game 3, and Sabathia went the distance in Game 5, the first postseason complete game for the Yankees since Roger Clemens in the 2000 ALCS. But in part, it may have also been a matter of the trust Girardi had in Soriano relative to Rivera. Had the latter — Girardi's former teammate, a five-time world champion, and arguably the greatest posteason performer in history (0.70 ERA in 141 innings) — been present, there's a strong possibility he'd have thrown the ninth in at least one of Sabathia's two starts. Without being extended to 120 and 121 pitches in those turns, Sabathia might have had more in the tank for his ALCS Game 4 start, when he was peppered for 11 hits and chased after just 3 2/3 innings.
Furthermore, had Rivera been on staff, Girardi would have had more bullpen depth and likely would have been more aggressive with his choice of relievers in the late innings of the first two games of the ALCS; even trailing 2-0 in Game 1, he might have opted for David Robertson and Soriano instead of Derek Lowe and Boone Logan, who doubled that deficit, requiring more heroics from Raul Ibanez and extra innings in the game where Derek Jeter broke his ankle. Key innings that ended up being pitched by Lowe, David Phelps or Cody Eppley might have moved higher up the bullpen chain, and the series might have unfolded differently, though of course Rivera's presence wouldn't have done anything for a Yankee offense flummoxed by Detroit's pitching.
None of which is to guarantee that the returns of Rivera and Soriano would have changed the outcome. After all, with both in tow, New York fell to the Tigers in the 2011 Division Series, and Soriano took the loss in the pivotal Game 3. The larger point is that Cashman can do a whole lot with the money the two pitchers would make in 2013 and beyond. Rivera has made $15 million a year for each of the past five seasons, and now that he's a free agent, he may need a similar salary to secure his return. Soriano will likely seek a longer-term deal with an average annual salary above the $11.7 million of his current deal, and above the $12.5 million average of Jonathan Papelbon's deal with the Phillies — particularly if he (or rather agent Scott Boras) is negotiating with the Yankees. New York has $119 million already committed to next year's payroll, with catcher Russell Martin, rightfielder Nick Swisher and starters Kuroda and Andy Pettitte all hitting free agency and likely requiring expensive contracts to retain or replace. Particularly with the flagging production of Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez — locked in for over $200 million combined through 2016 and 2017, respectively — they won't be able to go cheap in filling those other spots, and that's without considering longer-term decisions regarding extensions for Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson, both entering the final year of their deals.
In light of that, spending upwards of $25 million on a potential redundancy at the end of the bullpen isn't the best use of resources even for a team unafraid to break the $200 million payroll barrier, as the Yankees have done in each of the past five seasons and in six of the past eight. It's not as though they have all that much to fear from the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which, starting in 2014, includes a a 50 percent marginal tax rate for repeat offenders above a $189 million payroll threshold. If the Yankees avoid that for a single season, they reset their marginal tax rate to 17.5 percent. For a payroll of, say, $209 million (about what the Yankees have averaged since 2008), the difference between the two rates comes down to $6.5 million, which equals the average annual cost of trading A.J. Burnett to Pittsburgh for the final two years of his deal.
Rivera or no, the presence of both the 28-year-old Robertson and the 27-year-old Joba Chamberlain gives the Yankees a core of power righties around which to build a bullpen; both will presumably be past the injuries — Robertson's foot sprain and oblique strain, Chamberlain's 2011 Tommy John surgery and his dislocated ankle — that disrupted their 2012 seasons. Time and again, it's been shown that teams don't need to spend top dollar to build strong bullpens (this year's Orioles stand as a prime example), and the list of the highest-paid closers and setup men is littered with cautionary tales. In Rivera (8 1/3 innings in 2012) and Soriano (39 1/3 innings of 4.12 ERA ball in 2011), the Yankees have plenty of recent experience in this area this themselves. If Rivera does opt for retirement, it will be an emotional time for the Yankees and their fans. He is the greatest reliever in history, bound for Cooperstown as well as a spot in the team's own Monument Park. The "Core Four" of Yankees with links back to their 1996-2001 run has already been reduced by the retirement of Jorge Posada and the comings and goings of Pettitte, while Jeter is entering the final guaranteed year of his contract. Someday soon they'll all be gone, and the Yankees will have to cope, both on the field and inside the clubhouse, where the influence of those veterans has helped to define their long run. The Yankees managed to survive the departures of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Don Mattingly, Bernie Williams and so many others, and the odds strongly suggest they can do it for Rivera.