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People v. Mariano Rivera

Yankees' pitcher Mariano Rivera walking between interval training

Yankees' pitcher Mariano Rivera walking between interval training during Spring Training. (Feb. 22, 2012) Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

In baseball free agency, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups. Fans who will do anything to keep their favorite players and fans who have no problem kicking any player to the curb.

This is Part 3 of our series looking at upcoming free agents for the Mets and Yankees and arguing for and against keeping them.

(Insert the "Law & Order" clang, clang here, just in case you didn't already catch the reference.)

The case:

Mariano Rivera is in his 18th season with the Yankees. He began the year as the team's closer, a role he had held since 1997. But Rivera tore the ACL in his right knee while shagging fly balls prior to a game against Kansas City on May 3. The injury required season-ending surgery. Rivera will be 43 at the start of the 2013 season, and the all-time saves leader has said he plans to pitch.

The facts:

Rivera is the all-time leader with 608 career saves and has helped the Yankees win five World Series titles. He's finished in the top five of American League Cy Young voting five times, finished in the top 20 of AL MVP voting six times and been selected to 12 All-Star games.

The prosecution:

Rivera is a legend, a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer, fan favorite and genuinely nice guy. Which is why it's so difficult to say that it's time for the Yankees to move on.

Rivera has done a tremendous job avoiding the effects of Father Time, but now he has to work that magic while also coming back from a serious injury.

And though it's been subtle, Rivera has shown signs of decline. His ERA has risen in each of the last five seasons, from 1.40 in 2008 to 2.16 in 2012. Granted, that's still excellent, but any upward trend is never good.

Here's a number to be more concerned about: Rivera's ground ball rate hadn't fallen below 51.2 percent since 2003, and the closer has a career 53.2 percent rate. The past two seasons that number has fallen to 46.5 percent and 45.5 percent, respectively. To make up for it, last season his line drive rate ticked up and this season his fly ball rate increased (40.9 percent). Neither is a good outcome, and that fly ball rate is particularly troubling given the small confines of Yankee Stadium.

Rivera's fastball was also at its slowest this season, clocking in at just 90.5 mph. His cutter is at a career-worst 90.6 mph.

After blowing no more than four saves from 2004-2009, Rivera blew five in 2010 and 2011. He already had one blown save in nine games pitched this season.

Rivera's age has led the Yankees to use him more carefully over the last several years. His innings have decreased every season from 2004 (78.1 innings) to 2011 (61.1 innings) – we'll leave 2012 alone because of the early injury.

Here's the bottom line: Saying goodbye to Rivera was never going to be easy. Either he went out on the top of his game, making it nearly impossible for a replacement to fill his shoes, or he totally fell apart, making it nearly impossible for fans to watch as their beloved closer became a shell of himself. The May injury was almost a blessing in disguise. It allowed Rafael Soriano to assume the closer role without any real pressure of “replacing” Rivera.

The fact that he's had so much success in the role should make it easier for the Yankees to finally bid adieu to the Sandman.

The defense:

He's Mariano Rivera.

Oh, you want some facts, too?

Okay, how about the fact that Rivera's 2.16 ERA in 2012 is still lower than his ERA in 2000, 2001, 2002 or 2007? His strikeout per nine innings rate this season was 8.64, still higher than his 8.26 career rate. His 2.16 walks per nine innings in 2012 was still right in line with his 2.04 career rate.

Rivera's home run rate from 2010-2011 was actually an improvement over his rate from the three previous seasons, so any worries about Rivera being more susceptible to the long ball are unfounded.

Then there's this: Rivera has come back from injuries before. Groin and shoulder problems limited him in 2002. But Rivera went 5-2 with a 1.66 ERA in 2003.

Soriano has been excellent this season. But this is the same guy who posted a 4.12 ERA in 2011 and has a reputation for being grumpy when he's not used exclusively as a closer.

Why turn your back on a guy who's done nothing but be consistently great throughout his career in favor of a pitcher with an uneven track record?

Oh, and there's this: He's Mariano Rivera.

The verdict:

The decision to bring back or not bring back Rivera may not lie entirely with his wishes, or even the Yankees.

Soriano is due to make $14 million next season, but has an opt out and could take a $1.5 million buyout and test the market. He could gamble that his standout 2012 will earn him a lucrative multi-year deal. Or he could decide he doesn't want to take a backseat to Rivera, if the Yankees indeed bring Rivera back.

The Rivera decision also has another dimension: It's not entirely about 2013. Rivera may come back and pitch well in 2013. But will he be lights out? And how long will it truly be before he's not effective anymore?

Meanwhile, Soriano will be 10 years younger than Rivera at the start of the 2013 season and could be the Yankees' closer for many years to come.

It's for that reason that the Yankees shouldn't roll the dice on Rivera returning to form. As much as it hurts, they should cut ties and extend Soriano.

Every era has to end. Even for an all-time great like Rivera.

New York Sports