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25 Smartest Moves of the Past 25 Years: Yankees extend Mariano Rivera

With free agency looming, the Yankees locked up the greatest closer of all-time (for the first time) for four more years.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Back in 1990, the New York Yankees signed a rather diminutive starting pitcher out of Panama named Mariano Rivera for $3,000. After pitching quite well in short bursts in the minor leagues for five years, Rivera was ultimately called up to the big leagues in 1995 and promptly disappointed to the tune of a 5.51 ERA. He was eventually transitioned to the bullpen, dominated as a setup man in 1996, became closer in 1997, and the magic continued from then on.

Twenty-seven years later, it’s safe to say the Yankees do not regret making that move. Over the course of his career, Rivera made 13 All-Star appearances, won the World Series five times, earned World Series MVP in 1999, led the league in saves three times, set the all-time record for saves in a career (652), and became the first and only unanimous Hall of Famer in league history. I could list even more accolades, but for the sake of my word count, I’m going to stop there.

After playing contract-to-contract for the first portion of his career, the Yankees thankfully locked Rivera up for four years when he signed his first extension just a week after Derek Jeter’s 10-year extension in 2001.

Signing Details: Signed to a 4-year, $39.99 million extension

Transaction Date: February 17, 2001

Stats over length of contract (2001-04): 254 G, 276 IP, 2.12 ERA, 211 ERA+, 2.56 FIP, 253 K, 23.2% K%, 4.9% BB%, 0.97 WHIP, 9.6 fWAR, 3-time All-Star; 2003 ALCS MVP

After Rivera established himself as the preeminent bullpen arm in the league and closed out the last three Fall Classics, the Yankees front office really had no choice but to lock him up. He was obviously an integral part of the team’s core and, from a business perspective, became extremely important as one of the faces of the franchise. With free agency looming after the upcoming season, Rivera and the Yankees agreed to an extension that paid him an average salary of $9,997,500. That’s decent money for a reliver in 2001.

Looking at the stats over the length of his extension, I think it’s safe to say Rivera delivered. In his first season after signing, Rivera posted arguably the best year of his career as a closer, pitching to a 2.34 ERA, 2.28 FIP, 26.8-percent strikeout rate, and 3.9-percent walk rate over 80.2 innings, en route to becoming the sixth closer of all-time to record 50 saves (a feat he would repeat again in 2004) and posting a 3.2 fWAR.

In the playoffs, Rivera was brilliant as ever, notching a 0.61 ERA and .424 OPS against across 14.2 innings as the Yankees upset a couple teams that were better than them in the regular season. His two scoreless frames behind Mike Mussina kept the Yankees alive in ALDS Game 3 with a 1-0 victory in Oakland, and he threw another scoreless couple innings in the Game 5 clincher as well. Rivera saved a pair during the ALCS victory over Seattle, and then blew the D-backs away at Yankee Stadium as the Yankees won all three games at home.

Game 7 was, regrettably, a part of Rivera’s 2001 postseason as well, but that’s well-trodden ground.

Despite having a productive 2002 season, injuries hampered Rivera’s playing time, leading him to appear in just 45 games. He saved their only ALDS win against the Angels, and then had to sit on the bench as his fellow pitchers allowed Anaheim to score 26 runs in the final 3 games, shocking the world and ending the Yankees’ season.

As unlikely as it may have seemed, Rivera found yet another gear in the 2003 and 2004 campaigns. Appearing in 138 games across two seasons, Rivera threw 149.1 innings and successfully saved 93 games in 103 attempts. He pitched to a 1.81 ERA, 2.62 ERA, 21.8 percent strikeout percentage, and 5.1 percent walk percentage while posting an ungodly 84.9 percent left-on-base rate. He was worth 4.9 fWAR over that stretch.

Rivera provided Yankees fans with countless memories of truly dominant performances. None are more noteworthy, however, than his performance in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox.

With the game tied at five runs apiece going into the ninth inning, manager Joe Torre summoned Rivera from the bullpen to keep the game tied. He ended up picking up the win after pitching three scoreless innings — his longest outing since 1996 — striking out three and giving up just two hits to one of the best offenses in baseball. The Yankees would eventually go on to win the game in the bottom of the 11th inning. Rivera’s performance in Game 7 ultimately earned him the 2003 ALCS MVP, as, in total, he gave up just one run and five hits over eight innings in four appearances with two saves and one series-clinching victory.

While it wasn’t all great for Rivera — again, it’s impossible to talk about his stretch from 2001 to 2004 without mentioning his Game 7 loss to the Diamondbacks (the first and only postseason loss of his career) in 2001, and his uncharacteristic hittability against the Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS — but the stats show that this is still one of the most dominant stretches by a relief pitcher in league history. No one doubted Rivera’s prowess.

By the end of his extension, Rivera not only established himself as the best reliever in the game, but put himself on a Hall of Fame career trajectory. Rivera would go on to sign four more high-dollar contracts with the Yankees, totaling $106 million over nine phenomenal years (and closing out a fifth World Series victory).

Looking back on this deal nearly 21 years later, this extension might go down as one of the best deals ever given to a reliever. As a lifelong Yankees fan who came of age right in the heart of the Yankees’ dynasty, I can’t possibly imagine those teams without Rivera, and I also can’t picture him in a different uniform. Thankfully for us, we never had to.