But then, astute readers will immediately notice that one of these things is not like the others. Jones and Guerrero were highly rated outfield prospects who went on to have very productive, borderline Hall of Fame careers. That’s nothing to sneeze at, of course, and if you were fortunate enough to get the prime years of those careers you got an awful lot of production for it. But Mariano Rivera is pretty much unanimously regarded as the greatest relief pitcher of all time. If all else were equal, you’d expect the greatest player ever at one position to clearly be better than a borderline HOF case at another position.
And herein lies the rub: Mariano Rivera is, by definition, the exception to the rule. What Mo has done in his career and the value he’s provided to his team says absolutely nothing about the performance or value of any other relief pitcher because they’re not Mo. This is necessarily what we mean when we call Mariano the GOAT, though I don’t think many people really appreciate that reality. And this is why wondering about who is going to be the “heir to Mo” is a rather silly endeavor. If you’re asking who is going to be Mo when Mo isn’t there anymore, the answer is: no one. David Robertson probably isn’t going to be Mariano Rivera anymore than Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes or Rafael Soriano are. Right now, he’s just the latest reliever to have a really good season in pinstripes, thus requiring everyone to anoint him the indispensable future closer of the Yankees. But if Mo is as special as we say he is (and he’s probably even more so, really), then it’s just not as simple as all that.
The fact of the matter is that sayings that become cliche generally do so because there’s a large element of truth to them and, along those lines, relief pitchers really are volatile creatures. Sometimes they get hurt, sometimes the league figures them out, sometimes their numbers just regress to the mean as the sample size of their career gets larger. Rivera’s career did this to a much lesser degree than anyone else’s, but that fact is what makes him an especially unique historical figure, not something that proves whichever Reliever X has a great season with unbelievable peripherals can so sustain those numbers for 10-15 years more. If that were the case, there would be a lot more Mariano Riveras kicking around, and then there wouldn’t be much of a point to worrying about who was going to replace him some day either.
Of course, what fans and bloggers think is, at the end of the day, just idle chatter. But thing I do worry about is the possibility that the current Yankees’ brain trust has become so accustomed to having such an historically great player filling a specific, unique role for so long that if, Mo forbid, it ever comes to pass that he isn’t the Yankees’ closer anymore, the organization will join the fans in endlessly hunting the white whale that is The Heir to Mariano.