benberkonWhen Mariano Rivera announced his official plans to retire at the conclusion of the 2013 season, a new-found sense of fear likely trickled into the New York Yankees’ front office. For the first time since 1997, a non-Rivera reliever would be taking the ball in the ninth inning.
The idea of any closer following Rivera’s decade-plus of late-inning dominance seemed impossible; unimaginable even, for those filled with nostalgia. Yet, “rookie” closer David Robertson’s stellar performance in 2014 has, at least, temporarily put the Yankees at ease in the post-Rivera era.
To date, Robertson has posted a 3.06 ERA (versus a park-adjusted 2.12 xFIP), 4.00 strikeouts-to-walks ratio, and 34 saves in his first season as a closer. The 29-year-old has also struck out batters at a career-best 13.68 strikeouts-per-nine-innings clip, too.
However, Robertson’s reign as the Yankees’ closer might be short lived.
Despite owning a cumulative 2.80 ERA (versus a 2.84 xFIP) over his seven-year career, the Bombers never seized the opportunity to extend the homegrown right-hander in his early, arbitration years. And now, as a result, Robertson is primed for a big payday as a first-time free agent.
In a vacuum, it makes a lot of sense for the Yankees to re-sign David Robertson. The Yankees’ 2014 bullpen has only posted a combined 3.65 FIP, which places 19th in the major leagues. Even though Dellin Betances’ skillset is deserving of closing, subtracting Robertson from the 2015 equation would only be a disservice for a bullpen that could still use a little help.
But as illustrated by the failed Robinson Cano negotiations this past offseason and the recent decision against pursuing Cuban prospect Rusney Castillo, perhaps even the Yankees have their financial breaking point.
The Yankees’ 2015 payroll is currently sitting at around $166 million—which doesn’t factor in arbitration raises to Ivan Nova, Shawn Kelley, Francisco Cervelli, and [potentially] Esmil Rogers. It’s also likely the Yankees will need to address the stark voids at shortstop and second base, too.
Assuming the team’s payroll exceeds $189 million for the 12th consecutive season in 2015, ownership will continue to dish a whopping 50 percent competitive balance (or “luxury”) tax out on any player signed this offseason (once the plateau is eclipsed).
For instance, if general manager Brian Cashman offered Robertson a contract averaging $10 million per season, the Yankees would actually being spending $15 million annually on the reliever.
Given the high volume of regrettable closer contracts in the past, Cashman could learn from other general managers’ mistakes.
Since 2005, there have been five multi-year contracts handed out to closers (or relievers with past closing experience) between the ages of 27-31. Those relievers include Jonathan Papelbon (in 2012), Rafael Soriano (in 2011), Brandon Lyon (in 2010), Francisco Rodriguez (in 2009), and B.J. Ryan (in 2006).
While Ryan’s contract was a bust due to injuries (he only pitched 155.1 innings over his five-year contract), the greater issue with highly paid relievers is that they’re simply poor allocations of teams’ money.
Take Papelbon, for instance. Even though the All-Star closer has owned a 2.35 ERA (versus a 2.87 FIP) since signing his four-year, $50 million contract in 2012, he’s only been worth 3.7 fWAR over that span. And now with prospect Ken Giles ready to close, the Phillies have been trying to dump the 33-year-old, who is earning around $10 million per 1.0 fWAR.
The Yankees’ self-inflicted impasse with David Robertson represents yet another financial albatross in the making. In fact, Robertson has averaged about 1.6 fWAR since 2012—which means the Yankees would be paying Robertson about as much per win as the Phillies are with Papelbon.
That’s not to say that the Yankees shouldn’t or couldn’t sign a different, less expensive reliever this offseason to setup for Betances.
As FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron articulated in his November 2012 piece on the San Francisco Giants re-signing Jeremy Affeldt, not all multi-year, reliever contracts are bad moves. Cashman could instead covet non-closer, free-agent options—like Luke Gregerson.
Gregerson has owned a career 2.82 ERA (versus a 3.26 xFIP) as a setup man for the San Diego Padres, and most recently, the Oakland Athletics. The 30-year-old has also witnessed his career 2.77 walks-per-nine-innings drop almost a point to 1.83 in 2014. Paired with a stellar 49.1 percent groundball rate, the right-handed reliever would make an ideal, late-inning tandem with Betances.
The Yankees could additionally sign a reclamation project like Luke Hochevar. The former first-overall pick, who has missed all of 2014 with Tommy John surgery, found his calling in the Kansas City Royals’ bullpen. Prior to his injury, the right-hander tossed a 1.92 ERA (versus a 2.90 xFIP) and 10.49 strikeouts-to-walks ratio in 2013.
It goes without saying that the New York Yankees and its fans had been spoiled by the longevity and dominance of Mariano Rivera. But just because David Robertson flourished in succeeding the Hall of Famer, doesn’t mean the Yankees should destructively reward Robertson with the same brand of loyalty as they did with Rivera.
Ben Berkon’s work has been published on Huffington Post, The Onion, and various other mainstream sites. Make sure to follow him @BenBerkon.