There was little risk involved when Rafael Soriano opted out of his 2013 contract, because between the Yankees' qualifying offer and the buyout, he's already guaranteed $15 million. The question now is what Soriano's further reward will be for hitting the market.
How much are the Yankees willing to risk that Mariano Rivera, at age 43 and coming off a knee injury, can regain the form of the greatest relief pitcher who ever lived? And can the Angels, without Dan Haren and Ervin Santana, afford to go through another season with a bullpen that -- Ernesto Frieri or no Ernesto Frieri -- blew 22 saves? Can the Brewers, who led the National League in runs but blew 29 saves, think about being players in the NL Central? Can the Red Sox, who admittedly had woeful starting pitching, risk another season with a 61 percent save record? Will the postseason scars of the Tigers and Nationals bullpens send them to the same conclusion the Phillies reached last winter, when they signed Jonathan Papelbon?
There will always be a debate over the worth of the high-profile closer on a contending team, not to mention exactly from whence they come. In 2012, Baltimore's Jim Johnson led the Majors in saves with 51; he had nine in '11. Fernando Rodney trailed Johnson with 48, after saving three in '11. Soriano saved 48 this past season after two as Rivera's ring-bearer in '11. Jason Motte had 42 saves in '12 after moving into the 'pen the previous August and finishing the regular season with nine.
"We all understand the value of starting pitching, and we're going to see how starting pitchers get paid on the free-agent [market] this winter," said one agent, pointing to the impending market values of Zack Greinke, Kyle Lohse, Anibal Sanchez, et al. "Look at the recent arbitration numbers. Three-plus starters average $4 million, three-plus closers [get] $5.5 million. Four-plus starters average $7 million, closers $9 million. Five-plus starters [get] $11 million, closers $12 million."
And we will be back into the arguments between historic scientific data that will prove that the best reliever should pitch the highest-leverage inning of each individual game, and that there is no tangible -- actually, theoretical -- difference between the seventh and ninth innings, while uniformed personnel will argue that science is two-dimensional and baseball is three-dimensional because of the human element, which is why some can and others cannot pitch the ninth, and why the seventh- and eighth-inning stepladders need the safety nets of the ninth-inning closers, just as there have been notable closers who have not been able to pitch reliably in non-save situations.
Understand, there is a lot of cash floating around the industry right now.
"Between the new national television contracts, the new local and regional deals and the prices owners have been getting selling their teams," said one Players Association official, "the market seems to be flush with cash."
So you noticed that the new Dodgers ownership would be willing to pay $262 million -- on top of the sale price of $2.1 billion -- and give up their two best prospects to acquire the television marketing rights to Adrian Gonzalez? Or that the Astros, bought for $117 million in 1993 by Drayton McLane, sold (with a 60 percent share of the regional network, along with a $70 million rebate for moving to the American League) for $680 million?
"Between the television contracts and the revenue-sharing money Bud Selig has made available to smaller-market teams," said an agent, "we're looking at each team having at least $25 million to spend."
So agent Scott Boras really believes that, with Jose Valverde possibly out and the Tigers' window opened only so far, Detroit will entrust one of the five highest payrolls to 21-year-old Bruce Rondon to close, even if he struck out 66 in 53 innings moving through the organizational ladder in 2012?
Will Soriano get a three-year, $40-something-million deal elsewhere? Boras believes it, because, as he maintains, "It's hard to win it all without a proven closer."
That's a natural statement for someone selling a proven closer, but there is something to be said for it, and something to be said for Rondon to getting a couple of years pitching in front of -- and learning from -- Soriano.
Perhaps clearing the Santana, Haren and Torii Hunter contracts will free the Angels to sign Soriano and a starting pitcher. The risk on Haren's $15.5 million option was deemed too great, and even a team like Boston, which has cash to spend, was concerned about his back condition after he had thrown 1,758 innings the past eight seasons (second only to the 1,788 1/3 by CC Sabathia in the Majors over that span), and the Angels would not allow the Red Sox to fly Haren in for a physical.
Washington seems intent on going after a center fielder/leadoff hitter like Michael Bourn, who will strike it rich because he fills a vital offensive and defensive position. So will there then be sentiment to move away from their strong commitment to Drew Storen? General manager Mike Rizzo is extraordinarily loyal to his guys, and Storen is one of his guys.
Milwaukee would have to go with a starter and Soriano and pass on the Josh Hamilton idea. The Red Sox? They have essentially told Boras they are going Andrew Bailey/Mark Melancon/Junichi Tazawa at the end, with Andrew Miller, Rich Hill, Craig Breslow and Franklin Morales from the left, as they try to find a veteran starter, a first baseman/bat and see if they can sign Cody Ross (the home .298/.356/.565/.921 vs. road .232/.294/.390/.684 splits this past season may prevent any three-year commitment).
Maybe the Rangers would have interest in Soriano, even with Joe Nathan, if they find that the Dodgers or Angels ultimately give Greinke a substantial sum. Or maybe the Reds, if Aroldis Chapman starts.
Maybe even the Yankees, again, if the Rivera contract talks or physicals hit snags.
Few thought Papelbon, whose Boston exit numbers weren't too far removed from those of Rivera, would get four years and $50 million. But he did. Whatever happens to Soriano, there is little downside to passing on his option and trying the market. The track record runs deep, so does the cash throughout the industry, and there are owners who cannot and will not forget games that seemed won and, in the end, were lost.
Tiger fans haven't forgotten the sound of Josh Donaldson's rocket off Valverde in the AL Division Series, Nats fans awaken to the horrors of the Cardinals scoring four runs in the ninth inning in the decisive game of the NL Division Series. Angels fans still wonder how they missed the playoffs.