- Wallace Matthews, ESPN Staff Writer
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Mariano Rivera ended the 2010 baseball season with 559 career saves.
As he prepares to begins the 2011 season, his total now stands at 560.
Because Mariano Rivera, for 15 years the most important cog in the machine that is the New York Yankees, has apparently saved his team once more.
As befitting an aging king preparing to abdicate his throne, Rivera -- according to a source with intimate knowledge of the negotiations -- chose his own successor.
He chose Rafael Soriano. More importantly, he convinced his bosses to choose Soriano.
And just like that, a team with huge holes in both its starting rotation and bullpen comes up with a waterproof patch. Suddenly, a question mark becomes an exclamation point. A shaky bullpen becomes one of the best in the league.
And without Mariano going to bat for Soriano, giving him the vote of confidence the Yankees needed to hear and agreeing to take him under his wing, to groom him for the most difficult succession since Larry Holmes tried to follow Muhammad Ali, maybe it doesn't happen at all.
Maybe the Yankees are still crossing their fingers, hoping to cobble together a couple of innings nightly out of Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson and Pedro Feliciano and Boone Logan, relying on a bridge to Rivera every bit as rickety as the one Indiana Jones had to cross to reach the Temple of Doom.
For weeks now, the Yankees have downplayed their interest in Rafael Soriano. Character issues, they said. Immature. Had run-ins with Joe Maddon in Tampa and Bobby Cox in Atlanta. Despite his indisputable wealth of talent, Soriano has been on three teams in nine years and left a trail of disgruntled ex-teammates in his wake. Not worth the risk, not at the price he and his agent, Scott Boras, were asking.
And now, suddenly, Soriano is about to become a Yankee.
According to the source, who insisted upon anonymity because he is not authorized to speak until Soriano passes his physical and the deal is official, Rivera played no small role in that.
In fact, it appears that he played a huge role. "Mariano knows this kid very well,'' the source said. "All those issues the Yankees were concerned with came up in the negotiations, but Mariano spoke to Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner and convinced [them] that he had matured and was worth getting. He told them he would look after the kid as a Yankee, bring him along so that in two years, he'll be ready to close for them.''
Rivera must have done a hell of a sales job, because not only do the Yankees get Sorianio, they give him the kind of deal that normally drives general managers crazy and makes guys like Boras, well, guys like Boras.
Three years at closer money, $35 million in all, with the ability to opt out for any reason after either of the first two years.
Meaning, if after a year as a Yankee, Soriano decides he doesn't want to caddy for Rivera and would rather close somewhere else, he's gone. Or, if Rivera gets hurt and the Yankees need to move Soriano into the closer spot in 2012, he invokes the opt-out and they start negotiations from scratch.
Or if after one year, or two, he just decides that $12 million isn't quite enough to live in his preferred manner, he can tear the deal up and start over again.
Sort of like Alex Rodriguez after his 2007 MVP season. And knowing Boras, if there's an opt-out in a contract, he's going to exercise it. Otherwise, why bother putting it in?
But that is a concern for another day, and for Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner to worry about. The best-case scenario is that this is a deal that works out fabulously for both sides; Soriano has the flexibility to do what he wants after this year, stay and succeed Mariano, or go and close somewhere else, and for 2011 at least, the Yankees not only have perhaps the game's best 1-2 bullpen punch, but a rock-solid insurance policy should anything happen to the 41-year-old Rivera.
And there is just as good a chance that two years from now, when Rivera is presumably ready to step aside, Soriano will make the post-Mariano era a seamless transition.
Again, all that is in the future. For now, Rafael Soriano is a Yankee and, literally overnight, the Yankees have the best bullpen in the league, maybe in all of baseball.
Now, that heart-stopping combination of Joba and D-Rob and Feliciano and Logan need only combine to get through one inning, or on nights CC Sabathia is pitching, maybe you won't have to see them at all.
And suddenly, that patchwork rotation looks a little less frightening when you know the starters have to get through only the sixth inning to give the Yankees a better than good chance to win.
The Yankees were always at their most fearsome when they were able to turn a nine-inning game into a seven-inning game, and suddenly, they've done that again.
A guy that, just a couple of days ago, the Yankees seemed to want no part of is about to become a vital part of their 2011 roster.
Give credit to the Yankees for swallowing their reservations about Soriano, and to Hal Steinbrenner for opening the checkbook.
But most of all, give credit to Rivera, whose one career save posted in the dead of winter may turn out to be among the most important of his career.
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