Five years ago today, the New York Yankees made a splash on the free agent market, signing one of the top relievers in the game in Rafael Soriano. At the time, the then-30-year-old Soriano was coming off an All-Star season with the Tampa Bay Rays, leading the American League with 45 saves and pitching to a 1.73 ERA in 64 games. However, as you may remember, this deal did not come together without some controversy.
The Yankees had been vaguely connected to Soriano nearly all offseason, especially after Cliff Lee spurned the Yankees offer to rejoin the Philadelphia Phillies. After several multi-year free agent deals for relievers had burned the Yankees in the past (Kyle Farnsworth and Steve Karsay specifically), GM Brian Cashman made it clear that he did not want to go that route again, especially if that meant giving up their first round draft pick.
On January 7, 2011, Cashman stated "I will not lose our No. 1 draft pick. I would have for Cliff Lee. I won't lose our No. 1 draft pick for anyone else." The GM was adamant about holding onto the team's draft pick, but his his bosses had other ideas. Only eleven days after making that pronouncement, news broke that the Yankees and Soriano had agreed upon a contract worth $35 million over three years, with an opt-out clause after the first and second years. With Mariano Rivera still entrenched as the Yankees' closer, Soriano became the highest paid non-closer relief pitcher in baseball.
We later found out that Soriano's agent, Scott Boras, negotiated the deal, not with Cashman, but with team president Randy Levine, under the orders of the Steinbrenner family. After Soriano's introductory press conference, Cashman didn't have many good things to say about his new setup man:
"I'm charged with obviously winning a championship," Cashman said. "I'm charged with building a farm system. I'm charged with getting the payroll down, and this certainly will help us try to win a championship. There's no doubt about that, so that's in the plus column, but I didn't recommend it, just because I didn't think it was an efficient way to allocate the remaining resources we have, and we had a lot of debate about that...My plan would be patience and waiting. They obviously acted. And we are better, there's no doubt about it...We are better with Soriano -- there's no doubt about that. It's all the other stuff wrapped around the deal, the money, allocating closer-type money to an eighth-inning guy, those type of things...the people who cover me, asked me several times my interest level in this type of a concept and I think they know directly or indirectly that was something I would have been risk-averse to and that's still the case. I'm not here to tell you anything otherwise.
I think 29 clubs would love to have Rafael Soriano thrown down their throats."
It certainly was a stunning remark, especially since this was the day of the introduction ceremony and we rarely hear team executives not toe the company line and disagree so publicly. Cashman had to have felt undermined to a degree, especially since it appeared as if he was finally getting the control he had been seeking for so long in order to start building the organization the way he wanted after so many years under George Steinbrenner.
Despite Cashman's objections, the deal certainly could be seen as a success from the Yankees perspective. While Soriano missed several weeks with an elbow injury and generally pitched unspectacularly in 42 games in 2011 (4.12 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 105 ERA+), he more than made up for it in 2012. Following Rivera's freak knee injury in Kansas City in May, Soriano stepped into the closer's role and looked much more like the 2010 version of himself. In 69 games, the right-hander collected 42 saves, struck out 69, pitched to a 2.26 ERA and 187 ERA+. In the end, though, this deal didn't affect just Soriano. There is much more to explore with this deal five years out.
Because Soriano was listed as a Type A free agent (in the days before the qualifying offer), the Yankees had to give up their first round draft pick to the Rays. With that pick, the Rays selected LSU outfielder Mikie Mahtook 31st overall. The Rays also gained a pick in the supplemental round for losing Soriano, which they used to select junior college pitcher Jeff Ames 42nd overall.
Mahtook, who was ranked as the Rays' sixth best prospect following the 2014 season by Baseball America, made his big league debut in 2015. The 6-foot-1, right-handed hitting outfielder was described in the minors as a player who could drive the ball to all fields, an excellent baserunner, and as perhaps "the best defensive outfielder in the farm system." That scouting report held true when he reached the majors, with nearly 55% of his contact directed either up the middle or to right field according to Fangraphs. In his 105 at-bats, the 26-year-old slashed .295/.351/.619, hit nine home runs, and drove in 19.
Drafted as a starter, Ames pitched across two levels in the Rays' system in 2015 as a reliever, ending the year with Double-A Montgomery. The right-hander, who was ranked by Baseball America as the 13th best prospect in the organization after the 2012 season, tossed 24.2 innings with Montgomery, striking out 26, walking 14, and allowing just two earned runs in his age 24 season.
The ramifications of the Soriano signing do not stop there, however. When Soriano exercised his opt-out to become a free agent again following his big 2012 season, the Yankees (under the new free agent compensation system) made Soriano a qualifying offer, which he declined. The Yankees picked up a draft pick when the Washington Nationals signed Soriano to be their new closer. This is how Ian Clarkin eventually became a Yankee, with the team drafting him 33rd overall in the 2013 draft.
Clarkin has been consistently ranked in various top 10 prospect lists for the Yankees since he was drafted, despite dealing with an elbow injury that cost him all of 2015. The 6-foot-2 lefty, who turns 21 on Valentine's Day, did pitch in the Arizona Fall League in 2015 and showed some signs as to why the Yankees picked him in the first place, featuring a low-to-mid-90s fastball and power curveball.
Five years out, and what have we learned? Well, we do know that despite how easy it is to celebrate or trash deals in the moment, we can never know the full affect of a deal immediately. So many factors play into the grade of a deal, with the most important factor being time. Yankee fans were mostly split on the signing. (Just check out the series of Pinstripe Alley stories and the reader comments).
Time is the only form of measurement that allows us to tell if a deal is successful. With the Rafael Soriano signing, time shows us that the Yankees not only got a year of dominant relief from Soriano, but because of his decision to opt out, they (a) freed up $14 million dollars and (b) gained a draft pick, which they used to select a high-upside left-handed starter. So in the end, it looks like Cashman got his wish of building from within anyway.