Longtime New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera thought long and hard about hanging up his spikes for good after tearing his ACL way back in May, but Erik Boland of Newsday reported over the weekend that Mo has decided he wants to come back for one last hurrah in 2013.
Assuming he and the Yankees are able to agree on a new contract, the greatest relief pitcher in the history of baseball will once again be suiting up in pinstripes next season.
But what of the land beyond 2013? Who will take Mo's place once he finally retires?
Rafael Soriano was a candidate for the honor once upon a time, but not so much anymore. He thrived closing games in Rivera's stead in 2012, and he's looking to capitalize on his performance on the free-agent market after opting out of his contract a few days after the World Series ended. He's likely going to want too many years and too much money for the Yankees to re-sign him.
After spending the bulk of the 2012 season as a closer, Soriano may not want to be Rivera's understudy in 2013 anyway. There is, however, at least one pitcher out there who would love to hold that position during Rivera's (probably) final big-league season.
According to Andrew Marchand of ESPNNewYork.com, Kansas City Royals free-agent right-hander Joakim Soria wouldn't mind going from being a primary closer to being a primary setup man for Rivera. He apparently considers Rivera his idol, and he would like very much to learn under him.
"If the Yankees call, we will be all ears," said Soria's agent, Oscar Suarez, on Monday. "If there is a fit, Joakim would be elated to work with Mo. He would close everywhere except there."
As of Monday, the Yankees hadn't yet kicked the tires on Soria. If they do, they'll join a list of suitors that his agent says is already eight teams deep. His agent says that a deal could be agreed upon soon if the right offer comes along.
There will be some risk for whichever team signs Soria. He didn't pitch all that well in 2011, and he's currently recovering from Tommy John surgery that he underwent last April. He may not be ready to pitch until after the 2013 season is underway, and then he'll have plenty of rust to shake off to get back to where he was in 2010.
Given the circumstances, should the Yankees give Soria a look as a potential long-term replacement for Rivera? Or should they pass on him and cross that bridge when they get to it after the 2013 season is over?
Giving Soria a shot wouldn't be the worst idea in the world. There aren't many relievers out there with his upside, and he's an even more appealing option for the Yankees because he's a guy who could actually take after Rivera out on the mound.
As far as Soria's upside is concerned, we know what it looks like. Between 2008 and 2010, he compiled 115 saves, a 1.84 ERA, a 1.01 WHIP and a 4.04 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He was an All-Star in 2008 and 2010, and he finished in the top 10 in the AL Cy Young voting in 2010 as well.
There's obviously some concern about how Soria will bounce back after his surgery, and there's also some concern about whether the 2011 season was the beginning of the end for him even before his right elbow started acting up. He regressed to post a 4.03 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP, and hitters went from hitting .216 against him in 2010 to hitting .259 against him with a .397 slugging percentage.
However, it's not like we're talking about a reliever who will need to recover an explosive fastball and an unhittable slider once he returns to action. Keith Law of ESPN.com pointed out in a recent Insider piece that Soria always pitched more like a starter when he came in to close things out, getting ahead in the count with his fastball and then going to his off-speed stuff to finish hitters off. Blowing hitters away wasn't his style.
According to FanGraphs, Soria's fastball sat in the low 90s before he had his surgery. It may take a little bit of time for him to get back there, but it's by no means unfair to expect him to recover that kind of velocity at some point down the road. If he does, that means he won't have to vary his pitching style from what it was like when he was one of the most dominant relievers in baseball.
What makes Soria a particularly intriguing fit for the Yankees is that one of the pitches he features is a cut fastball. The guy he's open to studying under, of course, just so happens to be the very man who popularized the cut fastball.
Last April, Mike Fast of Baseball Prospectus noted that Soria's cutter first appeared in July 2010. It's essentially a slower version of his fastball with more breaking action, and the idea behind implementing it seemed to be to cut down on the number of hits batters were getting off his fastball.
It worked. According to FanGraphs, hitters went from hitting .293 against Soria's fastball in 2009 to hitting .227 off fastballs and cutters in 2010. He saw his strikeout rate decline from 11.7 to 9.7, but he lowered his BABIP from .300 to .277.
However, hitters adjusted to what Soria had to offer in 2011. They hit .278 off his fastball, and .294 off his cutter. It didn't help that his average cutter velocity dropped by about two miles per hour from 91.7 to 89.8, which may have been an early sign of his forthcoming arm problems.
This is an area where a year of tutelage under Rivera could potentially have a huge payoff. Soria's cutter clearly isn't a totally refined pitch just yet, and it could very well become refined if he were to listen to whatever advice Mo had to give. Rivera could even teach him how to get by with a cutter that sits right around 90 rather than 92.
That's pretty much where Mo's cutter was at when he was on the mound early in the 2012 season. Per FanGraphs, it was only coming in at an average of around 90.6 miles per hour, yet he was still using it to hold hitters to an even .200 batting average.
Basically, the innings Rivera managed to pitch in 2012 were par for the course. He was getting by with merely decent velocity relative to what his velocity used to be like, and anybody who has been watching will know that this has been the case for quite a while now.
Rivera could throw his cutter in the mid-90s in his heyday, making it the closest thing to an unhittable pitch as yet discovered by mankind. As he got older, though, his cutter's velocity started going down bit by bit.
It's still been an effective pitch because Rivera knows how to locate it and when to give hitters a different look with his four-seam fastball. If he has any secrets in regard to how to vary pitch sequences, he could pass those on to Soria.
Provided he has a good set of ears and a good head on his shoulders, Soria could basically become a Rivera clone who also features a slider, curveball and changeup, which is a very scary thought. Hitters wouldn't necessarily be overpowered against him, but they'd surely be overmatched.
Now, all of this sounds good in theory, but reality has a way of taking things that sound good in theory and killing them before they're even off the operating table.
In this case, much depends on Soria's stuff eventually being close to where it was when he was one of baseball's most dominant relievers. His surgically repaired arm may not allow that to happen.
Plus, actually signing Soria to be Mo's successor would be tricky, as it would require the Yankees to sign him to a multi-year deal that would keep him in pinstripes beyond 2013. That's problematic for both the Yankees and for Soria.
It's problematic for the Yankees because giving a multi-year deal to a reliever is rarely a good idea, especially not when said reliever is coming off Tommy John surgery.
It's problematic for Soria, meanwhile, because a multi-year deal for him at this point would likely call for a low base and tons of incentives. He's better off taking a one-year "prove it" deal in hopes that he has a good season, so he can test the free-agent waters in 2014 with a significantly higher price tag.
Still, it's worth it for the Yankees to at least take a shot at calling Soria's bluff. They could call him up and say they're willing to give him a two-year deal loaded with incentives that also has an option for a third year. And sell it by telling him that they want him to learn under Rivera just as much as he does and that Rivera's job will pass to him in 2014 if he proves he deserves it in 2013.
Other teams will be able to offer Soria a chance to close right away and the kind of one-year deal he may be seeking at the moment, but he won't find another opportunity like the one the Yankees could offer him.
If he were to go for it, signing him could end up being an ingenious solution to one of the more notable dilemmas the Yankees will have to deal with in the very near future.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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