Negotiating with that other Yankee legend

Note from Matt: Hey all! I’m hoping everyone had an enjoyable Thanksgiving holiday; I know I sure did! After a couple of gravy-saturated hours of gluttony, I idled away the rest of my afternoon on the couch watching football. By the third quarter of the Cowboys/Saints’ game, I might as well of had tryptophan circulating intravenously throughout my body.

Anyway, I realize I haven’t contributed much material over the past two weeks and for that, I apologize. Work has been relentless of late as 2011’s first quarter rapidly approaches. Then last week, despite being on vacation, I found my time completely preoccupied with traveling and family obligations. Fortunately, now that the madness has subsided somewhat, I can get back to writing about the Yankees. Thanks for your patience.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably rolled your eyes on occasion in exasperation as Derek Jeter‘s saga rages on. At this point, all the non-news being disseminated throughout the media has become more monotonous than a poorly-scripted sitcom. I am unsure as to whether Larry or Mike will chime in on the situation, but I’m not particularly interested until something tangible occurs. What does intrigue me though is the similar circumstance (and seeming disinterest) of another Yankee legend who’ll soon be transitioning out, Mariano Rivera.

Once again, the most prolific closer in baseball history has managed to evade the proverbial spotlight. Except unlike Jeter, Mo isn’t returning from a season marked by all-time lows. At age 40, Mo produced a 1.80 ERA (238 ERA+, 2.81 FIP, 3.65 xFIP) and a 0.833 WHIP through 60 innings of work. He allowed only two home runs (good for an impressive 0.3 HR/9 ratio) which is especially desirable given the friendly offensive confines of the new stadium. According to B-Ref, he was worth a 3.0 WAR (Fangraphs wasn’t quite as generous, listing Mo at a 1.7 fWAR). This production came at the not-so-humble price of $15M.

Apparently, the closer is seeking a 2/$36M commitment from the Yankees for his services going forward. Granted, Mariano has mastered the art of mitigating hitter effectiveness (career .210/.263/.290 opposing triple slash) while simultaneously posting epic career postseason results (0.71 ERA/0.766 WHIP/139.2 IP). Make no mistake though; this is a staggeringly high price tag even for the richest team in baseball. Even if Yankee Brass is capable of lowering the salary to $16M (that’d “only” be a $1M raise), he’d still be enormously expensive. I’m sure Mo’s agent will cite the age-old adage, “you get what you pay for.” Yet, can you think of another closer even remotely close in salary? I certainly can’t blame Mo for trying to earn the maximum amount, but I also cannot accept the offer as a financially fiscal solution. Hence the eminent conundrum — at what point does talent cease to warrant the cost? At what point does iconic status translate into excessive burden?

Of course, the benefit is not without risk. Rivera has experienced lingering pain in his shoulder. According to Fangraphs, Mo’s infamous cutter has been steadily declining in terms of velocity and horizontal movement since his 2008 surgery. I was also surprised to learn that after posting a K/9 rate of 9.34 in 2007, 9.81 in 2008, and 9.77 in 2009, this stat fell rather precipitously to 6.75 in 2010. While the strikeout rate isn’t totally alarming in and of itself, it’s not exactly a point of conversation one ideally wants to have when considering an older pitcher preparing for another jaunt in a hitter-friendly park, in a hitter-laden league.

Regardless of what the Yankees choose to do on the Mariano front, one simple point remains static. There is not really a better (available) external option. Names like Rafael Soriano have been (and will continue to be) tossed around until Mariano is resigned. Realistically, guys like Soriano also mandate a small fortune along with a significant contract duration (not to mention the draft picks!). A ridiculous precedent was set earlier this offseason when the Tigers elected to sign Joaquin Benoit for 3/$16M. I don’t consider Benoit “elite,” but I have no doubt that his contract is indicative of what’s to come for quality bullpen arms. Perhaps a better point of reference might be Jonathan Papelbon, who earned $9.35M in 2010 and is set for a potential raise via arbitration despite deflated peripheral stats. Young, quality, dynamic hurlers simply do not come cheap.

Honestly, I’d have to assume there is almost no chance of Mo landing anywhere other than in pinstripes and I wouldn’t want it any other way. On a more pragmatic note, the Yankees need a closer. More importantly, the Yankees want a dominant, proven closer who is capable of representing the imposing Metallica lyrics synonymous with the ninth inning. On the other side of the coin, Mariano needs a home and certainly wants to remain in pinstripes. However, he’s an athlete insisting on a big payday. Hell, there’s even a chance he’ll be on par with El Capitán in terms of salary. Just like Jeter, Rivera realizes the relationship with the Yankees is symbiotic and yet a compromise will surely come at great expense.

Like many of you, I’ll be elated when this discussion is also over. I’ll feel much more comfortable once I know the Yankees have resigned the greatest closer in baseball history. Like many of you, I’ll also rue the day Mo becomes mortal. Let’s just hope it doesn’t happen while he’s earning an obscene amount of cash. Otherwise, the storyline will mirror that of his counterpart even more closely.