11/06/12 9:06 AM ET
Good thing Mo plans return, because Yanks need him
By Mike Bauman / MLB.com
If it were almost anybody else in these circumstances -- a 43-year-old pitcher returning from a torn right anterior cruciate ligament -- you would say: "Are you kidding me?"
But it's not anybody else. It's Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all time, an iconic figure not only in the Bronx, but in all of baseball. He defies the standard, conventional judgments about what will work and when.
Rivera suffered the knee injury while shagging batting-practice fly balls in Kansas City on May 3. He underwent surgery in June. He is expected to be ready for Spring Training.
The whole scenario of Rivera returning from this injury, at this age, to pitch with his typical efficiency and success, seems to be on one level, a vision of rose-colored optimism. And yet, this is the all-time saves leader with 608 and the all-time postseason saves leader with 42, not to mention that other-worldly 0.70 postseason ERA.
Rivera has earned a suspension of disbelief. So you don't blink when Yankees general manager Brian Cashman makes public his assumption that Rivera will not only return, but will return in full force and effectiveness.
"I believe in his ability to fill that job that he's always done," Cashman said. "He's never failed, and I know that knee is going to be good, so we look forward to returning him to the closer's role."
Here's the thing: The 2013 Yankees will need that Mariano Rivera, more than ever.
In 2012, they had Rafael Soriano on hand, as a setup man for Rivera, but with closer's credentials on his resume. He had a big season for the Yankees, converting 42 of 46 save opportunities, becoming one of the primary reasons the Yankees once again won the AL East and posted the American League's best record.
Soriano had a $14 million guaranteed contract with the Yankees for next season. But he also had an opt-out clause in his contract, and his agent is Scott Boras. Advised that there is even larger money available on the open market, Soriano opted out of the contract.
The Yankees issued Soriano a one-year, $13.3 million qualifying offer on Friday. He is expected to decline the offer in favor of seeking a multiyear deal on the open market, although Cashman said:
"We have a qualifying offer on Soriano, so it's still possible we'll have him. From our perspective, we're still in play."
Will Soriano still be available to the Yankees next season as insurance in case the unthinkable occurs and Rivera is not quite himself? What are the chances that another club will make a lucrative, multiyear offer to Soriano?
It would have to be a club with the need for a closer, combined with the ability to pay. There are at least a couple of likely bidders/suspects in that category. One would be the Detroit Tigers, faced with the late-season meltdown of incumbent closer Jose Valverde, who is also a free agent. Another would be the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Even the Red Sox, rebuilding and all, might look fondly upon solidifying their closer situation -- and at what might be considered the Yankees' expense.
The Yankees, meanwhile, paid Rivera $15 million last season, in what was the second year of a two-year deal. They can probably get him back for less in 2013, given the current circumstances, but they wouldn't want to offend him.
Rivera may be turning 43 later this month, and he may be coming back from a very serious knee injury, but the Yankees need him more than ever. He has been the closest thing to a sure thing that the closer's role has known over the last 15 seasons.
Some of the Yankees' other familiar assumptions went missing last month. There was that .157 batting average with six runs scored in the AL Championship Series. And the .188 average with 22 runs scored in nine games over two rounds of the postseason.
The Yankees, with the Majors' second-highest total of runs scored in the regular season, obviously cannot be judged on those nine October games. But something like this October slump was supposed to happen to mere mortals, not the Bronx Bombers.
This is why the return of Mariano Rivera is particularly reassuring, comforting and consoling at this moment. He may be returning at an advanced age, rehabilitating from major knee surgery, but he is still Mariano Rivera, one of the biggest reasons that his teams won those five World Series championships. He is a reminder, in many more ways than one, of the Yankees' best.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.