With the signing of highly-coveted reliever Rafael Soriano, to serve as Mariano Rivera's primary set-up man, and potentially his ultimate successor, the Yankees have finally made the type of splash that fans have craved since the end of the 2010 season.
Yankee fans have been waiting all off-season, thus far a period of relative inactivity for the team, for a reason to get excited, a reason to believe that the team could challenge the suddenly reloaded Red Sox for the 2011 AL East title.
Yes, Brian Cashman did move to lock up Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, the two Bronx stalwarts whose contracts had been up, but those signings were foregone conclusions that didn't do much to placate hungry fans. No one ever truly believed that "The Captain" or "The Sandman" were going to play anywhere other than the Bronx in 2011.
Following the mightily disappointing conclusion to the 2010 season, in which the Yankees were swatted aside by the eventual American League Champion Texas Rangers, the Bronx Bombers were desperate for new blood to infuse them with a renewed energy and hope.
Segments of the offense looked old, the starting rotation lost one, and possibly two members, and last year's revelation, Kerry Wood, opted to return to his Wrigley Field roots.
The Yankees had holes to fill, and it was no secret.
Brian Cashman and the Yankee brass set out prioritizing their greatest needs over the course of the off-season, and to the surprise of no one, those turned out to be the re-signings of Jeter and Rivera, along with chasing their recent nemesis, Cliff Lee.
Of course, as is always the case, rumors circulated around the Yankees in relation to every high-profile player available, but until recently, they had struck out at every turn.
Number one target, Cliff Lee, spurned the Yankees' money to return to his one-time home in Philadelphia.
The other marquee player to be had on the market, Carl Crawford, shocked the baseball world by signing a 7-year $142 million deal with the arch-rival Boston Red Sox. Yankee interest in him was never concrete, but it was widely assumed that they'd move to make a splash elsewhere if their efforts to land Lee were ultimately unsuccessful.
Outfielder Jayson Werth, another well-rounded player available, was already out of play, following the massive deal he signed with the upstart Washington Nationals. Though he has only been in the baseball spotlight for few seasons, and has never accomplished such standard milestones as hitting .300 or driving in 100 runs, his peripheral skills are admired by many around the game and led to him getting paid like a bonafide superstar. His 7-year, $126 million deal may seem like overkill to many, but for a franchise like the Nationals, attempting to establish legitimacy in the NL East, it was the type of deal that needed to be made.
Stories surfaced about the Yankees turning to the trade market in order to fill the sudden vacancies in their starting rotation. Rumors arose involving the Yankees and Zack Greinke, but concerns about his mental makeup, following treatment for anxiety disorder a few seasons ago, left the Yankees leery about bringing him into the pressure cooker in the Bronx. Greinke, a fine young hurler, was ultimately dealt to the Milwaukee Brewers, very likely a perfect destination for him.
Once Greinke was off the market, sources indicated that the Yankees were interested in acquiring right-handed starter Matt Garza from the Tampa Bay Rays to slot into their rotation behind CC Sabathia. Shortly thereafter, Garza was traded to the Chicago Cubs in massive deal involving eight players, several of them being very highly-touted Cubs' prospects.
Over the course of two dizzying months, Brian Cashman and the Yankees were left holding a bag of money, and no one to hand it to.
Even the most level-headed of Yankee fans had to be wondering what exactly, the Yankee GM was planning. After all, the Yankees were man-handled by the Rangers in the playoffs, several key players have appeared perilously close to old, and the top levels of the Yankee minor league system are not necessarily loaded with Major League ready talent.
Cashman, never one to let his intentions be known publicly, held his cards close to his chest, continually preaching patience as the off-season unfolded. He surprisingly went so far as to address specific rumors regarding right-handed reliever, Rafael Soriano, a Type-A free agent, saying that the Yankees would not surrender their first-round draft pick in order to sign him.
With dwindling options however, even if they wouldn't ever admit it, the Yankees found themselves painted into a corner. After watching several other teams strengthen themselves significantly, the Bombers knew that they must do something to bolster their own chances of competing with a revamped Red Sox team, and some of the other perennial contenders across the league.
Much to everyone's surprise, after Cashman's very specific, public denial, the Yankees did exactly what they claimed they had no interest in doing, by forfeiting their upcoming first-round draft pick to sign Rafael Soriano.
In announcing their 3-year, $35 million pact with the in-demand Soriano, the Yankees suddenly vaulted their bullpen from solid, yet still questionable, to a force to be reckoned with.
The deal itself is quite creative. It calls for Soriano to receive $10 million in the first year, $11 million in the second, and $14 million in the third year. Each of the first two seasons contain an opt-out clause which would pay Soriano an additional $1.5 million if he were to exercise them. We can likely expect that to happen considering the history of Scott Boras clients and opt-out clauses.
Coming off of a season in which he was likely the best closer in baseball, everyone knew Soriano would be looking for top-flight closers' money, even as his agent, Scott Boras, intimated that the hurler was open to a set-up role with the Yankees.
After successfully converting 45-of-48 save opportunities with a 1.73 ERA, along with a 0.80 WHIP in 2010, the 31-year-old Soriano was surely a pitcher high on many teams' wish lists this off-season. The fact that he did so in the power-laden AL East made him all the more attractive to potential suitors.
Over his career, in 342 appearances, all but eight in relief, Soriano has posted a 2.73 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP, while striking out 422 in 395 innings. Though he has long been very successful, he finally rose to prominence with a great 2009 in Atlanta, followed by an absolutely stellar 2010 in Tampa Bay.
However, despite his immensely successful 2010 campaign, and last several years of his career, Soriano remained the highest-profile free agent available into mid-January. To some, his Type-A free agent status was likely a deterrent, as many teams cannot justify giving up a first-round draft choice in order to sign player, especially a relief pitcher. Other opinions may suggest that his affiliation with Scott Boras, uber-agent to the stars, could have been scaring off other potentially interested franchises.
Whatever the reasoning, Rafael Soriano found himself still available at such a late date in baseball's off-season.
The Yankees, although they had explicitly denied their interest just weeks ago, jumped at the opportunity to significantly bolster their relief corps.
With one bold stroke, the Yankees built a structurally sound bridge to Mariano, covered themselves in case of injury, and also lined up the possible heir apparent for the 41-year-old legend. Soriano is that good.
Yes, the Yankees paid quite handsomely for the services of Soriano, with a highly-coveted draft pick, as well as the $35 million commitment over three seasons. They realized however, that after watching the Red Sox sign Crawford, in addition to trading for Adrian Gonzalez and signing Bobby Jenks, they might have some catching up to do.
Never willing to concede an inch in the always hotly-contested AL East, the Yankees knew at this late stage, that their options were limited. The starting pitching targets they considered had long since evaporated and the impactful offensive players had all signed elsewhere.
Without pulling off a majorly surprising trade to unearth a little-discussed gem, they opted to make the lone move that would surely improve their current squad and bolster their chances going forward. They bit the bullet, forfeitted the draft pick, and handed a truckload of cash to Rafael Soriano.
While the price may have been steep, the move should pay immediate dividends as Soriano assumes the set-up role, allowing David Robertson and Joba to compete for seventh inning duties, while also potentially thrusting Joba back into the starting debate. In the absence of Andy Pettitte, the Yankees very well might still be searching for a starter or even two.
Along with the unheralded, yet potentially brilliant signing of lefty Pedro Feliciano, the Soriano signing has made the Yankee bullpen a strength that it hasn't been for several years. Now boasting two strong lefties, in Feliciano and Boone Logan, as well as the powerful trio of Soriano, Joba and Robertson, the Yankees feel that their bullpen can match up with any in baseball.
Some may decry the move as yet another short-sighted move by the Yankees, always seeming to have their eye on the immediate future, rather than nurturing their system for longer term goals; the move undoubtedly improves the 2011 New York Yankees.
Though their starting rotation still contains at least a few question marks, Joe Girardi can rest assured that at least, he won't have to play any guessing games in the eighth and ninth innings anymore, as he did so often during 2010.