January 13, 2011

The New York Yankees upgraded their bullpen and surprised much of baseball by agreeing to terms with established closer Rafael Soriano to be their primary setup man for the next two years while apprenticing to become the replacement for Mariano Rivera.

Soriano agreed to a three-year, $35 million deal with the Yankees that affords him the chance to opt out after the first or second year. Should he pitch to the lofty standards he set in 2010 when he had a 1.73 ERA and a 0.80 WHIP, Soriano could set himself up for an even longer deal by virtue of the opt-outs. Soriano's contract will pay him $10 million in 2011, $11 million in 2012 and $14 million in 2013. He would receive an additional $1.5 million should he opt out after 2011 or '12. The deal, which was first reported by SI.com, is pending a physical examination.

Soriano, who may have been the best closer in baseball last year when he went 3-2 with a league-leading 45 saves for the Rays, is said to relish the chance to set up for Yankees icon Rivera. Soriano is believed to have had at least one viable chance to close in a very tight market for closers, but the Yankees instead offered more guaranteed dollars and an opportunity to assist and learn from the the greatest closer in the history of baseball. Soriano had a breakout year in 2010, but still wasn't viewed by some as lights-out closer because he's spend much of his career in other relief roles. He compiled only 43 saves prior to last season, 27 of which came with the Braves in 2009, where he struck out 102 batters in 75 2/3 innings but was traded to the Rays after the season just days after Atlanta acquired the more established Billy Wagner.

Soriano, 31, emerged as one of the game's best closers in 2010, so the Yankees were seen as a highly unlikely destination for him. But with an incredibly weak market for top closers combined with the Yankees' failure to land the big starting pitching prize they sought, Cliff Lee, the stars aligned for this improbable match. The Yankees offered Lee $148 million, and still have about $20 million in their budget for 2011, even with Soriano, whose deal is the highest ever for a setup man and one of the highest even for a closer, behind Rivera, Francisco Rodriguez, Brad Lidge and Joe Nathan.

If all goes as planned, Soriano will inherit the Yankees closer job from Rivera after the 2012 season. Rivera signed a two-year, $30 million deal earlier this winter. Soriano is viewed as an ultra-talented pitcher, but he irked a couple Rays people with an alleged preference only to pitch in save situations.

That will change this year, when Soriano's niche will be the eighth-inning bridge between a strong coterie of middle relievers like David Robertson, Pedro Feliciano and Joba Chamberlain, who could be sought in trades now, and the great Rivera. In unusual circumstances, such as several save situations consecutively, Soriano could receive an occasional save opportunity in 2011.

The rest of Soriano's market remains a mystery, but there was said to be one team looking at him to be a closer on a two-year deal. The White Sox showed brief interest, as their manager Ozzie Guillen is a big fan, but they ultimately didn't have the money it would take after a busy, productive winter for them.

The Yankees will lose a draft choice for signing Soriano, a Type-A free agent, something their general manager Brian Cashman was recently quoted as saying they wouldn't do for anyone other than Lee.

With quite a bit of money left to spend, the Yankees will try to fill their remaining holes, the most obvious of which is in the rotation. They are waiting to hear from Andy Pettite about whether he will pitch in 2011, but even if he does return, they look like they could use another proven strarter, and along those lines have looked into Freddy Garcia, Kevin Millwood, Jeremy Bonderman and others. They have sought Andruw Jones for their fourth outfielder spot but are still apart monetarily there; Marcus Thames and Johnny Damon are among alternate possibilities for the outfield. The Yankees also would consider adding a veteran infielder, particularly one with the ability to play third base to spell Alex Rodriguez on occasion.

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