When Mariano Rivera crumpled to the ground on the warning track in Kansas City, it was supposed to be David Robertson, not Rafael Soriano, who stepped into the impossible task of filling in for the greatest closer of all time. Robertson ended up injured, and Soriano was given the chance to prove himself in the role he'd seen so much success in before signing on as the Yankees' set up guy against Brian Cashman's wishes.
The $35 million dollar contract over three years that cost Cashman his draft pick included two opt-out clauses for the end of the 2011 and 2012 seasons, pretty much ensuring that a bad year would keep Soriano around and a good year would have him likely seeking more money from the Yankees, or leaving to find someone who would pay up instead. After a poor showing in 2011, it was no surprise that Soriano decided to hang around, but the opposite may very well be true at the end of 2012.
Soriano has done as well as anyone could have expected in place of Rivera, converting all but three of his save chances so far; and according to Jon Heyman, he's likely to use his successful season to opt out with the probable intention of searching for more money and/or a multi-year deal. If that comes to pass, should the Yankees give him the money as an insurance policy for Rivera choosing retirement instead of a comeback, or let him walk away under the idea that relief pitchers are largely fungible and they already have someone who could potentially do the job for less?
If Soriano chooses to opt out and the Yankees decide to not give him the money or years he wants, they do have a couple of options they could use in the 9th inning. David Robertson has long been regarded as the closer of the future, and a few shaky outings over a relatively small sample shouldn't do much of anything to take away from that. He's inexpensive and under team control until 2015 at the earliest. He hasn't been as sharp this year as he was in his All-Star season a year ago, but his 2.81 ERA could easily be improved upon for a happy medium between that and his gaudy 2011 statistics. D-Rob does tend to put too many people on base for comfort, but no one should expect him to be Mariano Rivera overnight. The potential for growing pains as someone learns a new role in the bullpen is not enough of a reason to hand out a bad contract.
Joba Chamberlain has shown flashes of the reliever the Yankees think he can be after really struggling in his return from Tommy John surgery and a dislocated ankle in 2011. It would have been unrealistic to expect Joba to be instantly amazing after such a long time off, and he's certainly given reason to be optimistic in a few of his more recent outings. The team also seems to have reliever Mark Montgomery on the fast-track to the majors, who everyone and their mother has compared to David Robertson. The batters in AA haven't been able to figure out his slider yet, and he could be a bullpen factor as soon as next year if all goes well. Not that he would move into the closer role, but he could easily make up for one of the guys already in the pen getting locked into the 9th inning if there is no Soriano and no Rivera.
All of that is even assuming that Mariano Rivera chooses not to return to baseball after all, which he vowed to do after tearing his ACL earlier this season. Budget limitations on the horizon or not, it's extremely unlikely that the Yankees would turn away one of their icons so that he could finish his career in a different uniform if they think he will continue to be effective. If Mo wants to pitch, it's a safe bet the Yankees, for better or worse, will find a place for him. Does that leave a place for Soriano, though? Would he even be ok with going back into an eighth inning role he always seemed to be unhappy with?
With Jose Valverde and recent Tommy John recipient Ryan Madson headlining the closers for the 2013 free agent market, it's easy to see why Soriano may choose to opt out after proving himself as a strong 9th inning option once again. If Heyman is correct that the Yankees don't believe Soriano will choose to pass up his guaranteed $14 million dollars, all of this may end up being a moot point; however, should he decide that he wants security beyond the next year, the Yankees may be wiser to let him move on instead of handing over that chunk of the soon-limited budget to a relief pitcher. They already owe so much to so few for the foreseeable future, they shouldn't be looking to add another multi-year deal at a position where the players are notoriously volatile. Potential vacancies like the outfield may not be able to be filled from within immediately, and that needs to be the priority.
Cashman had the right idea in not wanting to lose a draft pick for a reliever, but Soriano did end up being a valuable piece to have around despite the absurd contract that will probably always be the main story of his time in pinstripes. He has untucked with the best of them this season, but if he decides to opt out, the Yankees would probably be better suited to let him go untuck for someone else. They may find themselves in an even deeper hole for the future if they don't, and there are at least a few smarter ways the team could spread around that $14 million for needs that wouldn't involve it all going to one player.