Saturday December 4th, 2010

No one would have faulted Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein if part of his offseason strategy was to approach free-agent closer Mariano Rivera, Boston's longtime nemesis through his years with the Yankees, and hand him a blank check, with instructions to fill it out to his liking.

Given Rivera's squeaky-clean man of God image, Epstein could likely have trusted that the closer would have used some manner of discretion in filling out the amount of the check. Even if he didn't, Rivera would be worth a staggering sum of money, partly for the ceremonial value of stealing a Yankee icon but mostly because Rivera remains one of the best closers, if not the very best, around.

Instead, Epstein reportedly offered Rivera an undeniably fair two-year, $30-million contract -- so fair that the Yankees matched it and, as of Friday evening, formally secured the services of their future Hall of Fame closer through 2012.

Rivera remained his same brilliant self this year, saving 33 games with a 1.80 ERA, his seventh season of the last eight in which he had at least 30 saves and a sub-2.00 ERA. In five of those years, including 2010, his WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) was less than 1.00.

That's why Rivera was reportedly courted -- at least with a perfunctory contract offer -- not only by the archrival Red Sox, who have much to gain given their 18 annual games against the Yankees, but also by at least two other teams with one of them even offering a third year.

And as dominant as he's been in the regular season, he is even better in the postseason, having allowed just one earned run in his last 30 playoff innings, a span of 23 appearances dating back to 2005. He threw more than one inning in 10 of those outings, doubling his playoff importance with his ability to hold October leads in the eighth inning as well.

So while Rivera was a tempting open-market target for opponents wanting to swipe a Yankee living legend, no such interest sprung up around shortstop Derek Jeter. After all, had a team made such a Godfather Offer to Jeter as the hypothetical blank check Epstein could have given Rivera, the plan might backfire: what if he accepted it?

Over the summer my colleague Joe Posnanski discussed his take on an interesting debate: Is Jeter or Rivera the most important Yankee of the last 15 years? It's a worthwhile topic to discuss, given that each's contributions will net him a well-deserved place in Cooperstown for helping lead New York to five World Series titles in that time.

What's less worth discussing is who is the better Yankees player right now. While Jeter is still a good hitter -- he'll probably improve on his 2010 stats (setting or tying career lows with a .270 average, .340 on-base percentage, .370 slugging and 10 home runs), even if he's unlikely to return to his '09 form (.334/.406/.465 with 18 homers) -- he is no longer even an average defensive shortstop, no matter what the delusional Gold Glove voters said. At a price of some $15 million or more, teams would be taking a major gamble that Jeter would revert to his prime, something most 36-year-old shortstops don't do. That stands in contrast to Rivera's continued excellence.

And while there are strong points and counterpoints to the "who has been more valuable" debate, there is no comparison to the money they've already earned. While Jeter just completed a 10-year, $189 million deal and has career income of some $205 million, Rivera's lapsed contract was for three years and $45 million, as the closer has made just shy of $130 million in his career.

Yet strangely it is the Yankees' attempt to re-sign Jeter that has been the more acrimonious negotiation for fans to watch, even though it has essentially been just one team pursuing him, whereas Rivera signed rather peacefully despite having multiple suitors.

It's worth noting that Rivera's three-year, $45 million contract covered the seasons in which he was 38, 39 and 40. Earlier this offseason Jeter was offered an identical deal and, if media reports are correct, scoffed at the perceived lowball figure for seasons in which he'd be 37, 38 and 39.

But the seemingly tense back-and-forth between Jeter's camp and Yankees management is likely just contrived posturing from agent Casey Close, who is trying to artificially drive up his client's price without any bids from competitors by invoking such vagaries as Jeter's "total contribution to their franchise."

Both Jeter and Rivera want the same thing -- to contend for more World Series titles and to retire as Yankees -- but the disparate tension level of their negotiations is a result of one player's indisputably high market value, as confirmed by competing franchises, and the other's worth determined more by his agent perpetuating the aura of the captain's intangibles.

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