Rafael Soriano did well for himself in the off-season. He was looking at possibly being an afterthought with the New York Yankees in 2013 after doing an excellent job as the emergency closer in 2012. Yet for coming through in the clutch all he was hearing was the drumbeat for Mariano Rivera‘s comeback.
Soriano could easily picture being shunted into a setup role and he knew he would have more fun as a closer. Shopping around he got a two-year deal from the Washington Nationals, a team on the rise that looks to be better than the Yankees this coming summer. The irony, of course, will be if Rivera, the all-time saves leader, can’t come back at full strength after the knee operation that wiped out most of 2012 for him. Then the Yankees (boo-hoo) won’t have a closer.
I have been a skeptic from the first whether or not Rivera would make it all of the way back to the Yankees in his same critical role when he really wanted to retire after last year. Rivera felt he just couldn’t end his likely Hall of Fame career on the disabled list, so he pledged to rehab and recover and fight back to pitch this year.
We still don’t know if he can do it, but it’s obvious he’s trying. Rivera may walk out on the mound in spring training, fire a few pitches, and get rocked because he lost his zip at age 43. Or, he might start the season as the closer looking good and his repaired knee might not hold up. In either case, Soriano will be chuckling from afar. He was an insurance policy last year that was cashed in and prevented bullpen catastrophe in the Bronx.
Soriano pitched and talked his way into a $28 million contract for Washington with a possible third year. Even the big-spending Yankees didn’t want to spend that big. The Nationals are counting on the 33-year-old righty being the same guy he was last year when he saved 42 games with a 2.26 earned run average. Since Soriano has had an up-and-down, around-the-block career, there is no guarantee he will repeat those numbers. However, he pretty much did the same work in 2010 for Tampa Bay when he saved 45 games with a 1.73 ERA. So it could happen.
Rivera made it clear last year that it was playing his final season and then he was going to wave adios and return to Panama with his reputation intact as the finest closer in history. Then after nine games and five saves Rivera ripped up his knee. A 12-time All-Star in 18 seasons, and a five-time World Series champion, Rivera, who throws a cut fastball 90 percent of the time, has 608 career saves. He’s at the top of the list there. His lifetime average is 2.21.
It’s difficult to imagine, but Rivera has actually been more effective in the post-season. He has 42 playoff or World Series saves on his resume and a post-season ERA of 0.70.
A month into the 2012 season Rivera tore his right ACL catching fly balls in the outfield in pre-game practice in Kansas City. It was a fluke injury, but a bad one. There are no certainties that an athlete well into his 40s can bounce back with the same skill after a serious injury and a long rehab. Everyone will be happy for Rivera if he comes back as good as new, but that’s difficult to predict.
Meanwhile, Soriano will be off in the National League, trying to earn his millions and trying to prove that the Yankees should have kept him around. As the Mayhem guy in those commercials demonstrates, you can never have too much insurance.