Soriano give Yanks late-game dominance
By now it’s common knowledge the Yankees were divided in their pursuit of Rafael Soriano, a rare split for an organization that’s always had a single vision of the enemy (the Red Sox) and how to defeat them (spend).
Political differences aside, though, the Yankees undoubtedly picked up the best remaining free agent pitcher on the market. By doing so, the Bombers now have the most dominant end-game equation in the majors, which at least after the seventh inning, means the Eastern Division rivals are now equals.
But this isn’t to say the Yankees are ready to overtake the Sox as the American League’s best team. Not now, not yet. Maybe not at all before October’s crap shoot.
But it’s safe to say Soriano’s addition has created a ripple effect throughout the organization. Here’s how the new set-up man impacts the Yankees and, specifically, whom.
JOBA CHAMBERLAIN: The Yankees all but abandoned Chamberlain last fall, replacing him with Kerry Wood. There was a brief period this offseason where the Yankees thought it would be possible to bring Wood back, but even after he ultimately returned to the Cubs the Bombers never considered making Chamberlain the set-up man again.
Soriano’s acquisition reinforced an already iron belief among the team’s talent evaluators — that Chamberlain’s blow-away factor had atrophied to the point that he could no longer be trusted. While the Yankees say Joba is still in their plans for 2011, they’re more likely to include him in a deal for a back-end starter.
Of course, the Yankees themselves bear some of the blame for Chamberlain’s decline, shuttling him back and forth between the starting rotation and the bullpen over the last three seasons.
One scout said, “I watched (Chamberlain) at times last year and I had a hard time remembering this was the same pitcher that had one of the league’s best sliders a few years ago.”
Chamberlain does have some attractive qualities on his resume — he still averages better than 94-mph with this four-seam fastball, and he made less than $500,000 last year. But it would take a series of unlikely events — Soriano opting out after the ’11 season and Rivera retiring sooner than later — for Joba to figure prominently in the Yankees’ plans.
MARIANO RIVERA: Soriano obviously understands he’ll be Rivera’s understudy for at least two years. If he doesn’t like the diminished responsibility, Soriano has the right to opt out of his contract in each of his first two years, perhaps even to re-negotiate with the Yankees after ’11 if Rivera were to end his career prematurely.
But both scenarios are unlikely, however; Rivera probably isn’t going anywhere before his contract expires after 2012. So it remains to be seen how Soriano likes the different world he’s about to enter.
The New York Daily News recently raised a point about Soriano’s personality that could make his assimilation a challenge: for all his blow-away talent, the right-hander isn’t necessarily a team player. Soriano apparently hates pitching more than one inning at a time, and was even less interested in non-save situations.
Aside from the fact that market interest for Soriano was so low, what about the Yankees’ situation attracted him, if such reports are true? According to the News’ Bill Madden, Soriano was “hated” by his Rays teammates last year, finally exhausting the patience of manager Joe Maddon in Game 5 of the American League Division Series against Texas.
Maddon asked Soriano to pitch the ninth inning with Tampa Bay trailing, 3-1. The reliever threw a tantrum in the bullpen and soon after allowed Ian Kinsler a two-run HR that all but ended the Rays’ season.
The Yankee clubhouse is nothing if not an extension of the professionalism exhibited by Rivera and Derek Jeter, among others. There’s bound to be friction if Soriano arrives with a chip on his shoulder — although, to be fair, team officials say Rivera was instrumental in persuading the Yankees to pursue Soriano, promising to take the new reliever under his wing.
ANDY PETTITTE: Could a bolstered roster be enough of an incentive to bring Pettitte out of his bizarre retirement? It’s a long shot, since the lefthander has never mentioned the Yankees’ personnel as a reason for staying home.
Still, the Yankees have a sense of momentum now, even if it’s cost Brian Cashman some of his pride. With a bullpen this strong, the Yankees need just one more piece — a left-handed starter — to all but ensure themselves a trip to the postseason, at least as the wild card.
Surely, Pettitte knows how much he’s still needed, even with Soriano around. The Yankees have only one lefty starter on the entire 40-man roster — CC Sabathia — which puts them at a distinct disadvantage against the Red Sox, especially at Fenway.
Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez give the Sox a more profound left-handed attack, which is more likely to feast on the Yankees’ right-handed dominant staff.
Pettitte may or may not realize he’s the difference-maker in the East, although, as one senior official put it, “it couldn’t hurt” for the veteran to consider how much better off the Yankees would be with him in the rotation.
As of this weekend, however, nothing has changed from Pettitte’s camp: he’s still at home in Deer Park, “chilling out” as he put it the other day. The Yankees no longer expect Pettitte to be in spring training, and are all but convinced he wouldn’t be ready for Opening Day even if he did change his mind today.