The signing of Rafael Soriano was not what the New York Yankees had in mind when the free-agent signing season began. The big prize was supposed to be Cliff Lee.
It was as if Brian Cashman made a date with Jessica Alba but reached to the door only to find Ellen DeGeneres.
But the Yankees could have done worse than sign Soriano to what amounts to a series of graduated one-year contracts in which Soriano will be allowed to opt out to close with another team.
Soriano, 31, was 3-2 with a 1.73 ERA and led the American League with 45 saves in 48 chances. That is not bad for a pitcher slated to set up Mariano Rivera and certainly an upgrade over Kerry Wood, who claimed that job in August but left to return to the Chicago Cubs.
The Yankees bullpen now looks a bit more formidable with Rivera and Soriano set to pitch the final two innings. The Yankees also signed left-hander Pedro Feliciano to go with young lefty Boone Logan and they still have right-handers David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain.
The question has been raised and the Yankees have answered it: Will Chamberlain be moved back to the rotation now that it appears Andy Pettitte will not likely pitch in 2011? The Yankees have said no.
So the next question is what is Chamberlain’s future with the Yankees?
At age 22, Chamberlain arrived in the Bronx and appeared poised for superstardom after posting a 2-0 record and an 0.38 ERA in 19 games in 2007.
But very soon after the midges in Cleveland drove him and the Yankees out of the playoffs, Chamberlain’s road to become the eventual successor to Rivera took a strange detour.
In 2008, Chamberlain was shifted at midseason to a starter. He finished 2008 with a 4-3 record and a 2.60 ERA. In 2009, he was a full-fledged starter but seemed hamstrung on the Yankees’ very cautious so-called Joba Rules.
He was a disappointing 9-6 with a 4.75 ERA and the Yankees shifted him into the bullpen for the 2009 playoffs rather than use him as a No. 4 starter. He appeared to regain a measure of confidence there and was 1-0 with a 2.84 ERA in 10 postseason games.
The Yankees, rather than embarrass Chamberlain, allowed him to compete in 2010 for a starting job with four other pitchers. When Phil Hughes emerged as the winner, Chamberlain was shifted back to the bullpen, ostensibly, for good.
The Yankees expected him to resume his 2007 role as setup man for Rivera. That did not work out too well. Chamberlain struggled through stretches of the season and two games became his undoing.
On May 29, Chamberlain entered the game in the seventh inning with a 10-5 lead over the Indians. The Indians rallied for seven runs, four of them charged to Chamberlain, in an eventual 13-11 victory over the Yankees.
On July 10, Chamberlain came in to hold a tenuous 1-0 lead Javier Vazquez had left him against Felix Hernandez. Chamberlain could not retire anyone and ended up serving up a grand-slam home run to Jose Lopez in a 4-1 defeat in Seattle.
Chamberlain lost the setup role to Wood and ended the season 3-4 with a 4.40 ERA. He blew four save opportunities out of seven chances.
If Rivera completes the two years on his contract and Soriano stays to pitch three years and replaces Rivera, Chamberlain’s window to become a closer for the Yankees will have to wait four years and Joba will be a seasoned 29 years old by then.
His window to return as a setup man is possibly two years away.
Would it seem possible that the Yankees might see with Rivera still effective, Soriano in the setup role, with the presence of Robertson and no plans to make Joba a starter that Chamberlain now becomes a prime trading chip?
If there was ever a time Chamberlain seemed close to being traded this is it. The Yankees need a starter and there are teams who still are intrigued by Chamberlain’s arm. He can still throw with velocity.
Contrary to reports that Chamberlain lost his fastball when he went to the bullpen, he was regularly hitting 97 mph and above on the gun late last season. The problem with Chamberlain is not velocity.
It seems that his signature slider that devastated hitters in 2007 and 2008 is not staying in the strike zone long enough to get hitters to bite on it. His fastball, no matter how fast it is thrown, is straight and hittable. His curve is an afterthought. He rarely throws it as a reliever.
So somehow Chamberlain has to develop a slider he can throw for strikes or he is going to have some miserable outings.
New pitching coach Larry Rothschild will have that task this spring unless the Yankees unload Chamberlain. That seems more likely in lieu of the fact the Yankees signed free-agent catcher Russell Martin.
That means that the Yankees are going to have to decide which catcher to play at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this season: Jesus Montero or Austin Romine. They could rotate and DH one while the other catches or they could simply trade one.
Montero has power compared to that of Mike Piazza. Yankee fans have been salivating over his arrival and want to see him stay. But the Yankees were willing to part with him to obtain Lee last summer from the Mariners.
So why not trade Montero and Chamberlain for a starter now? It seems likely that either Montero or Romine could go before spring training begins.
The Yankees also have a solid shortstop prospect in Eduardo Nunez who is stuck behind Derek Jeter and slugging third baseman Brandon Laird who is blocked by Alex Rodriguez. They also have young pitchers Hector Noesi, Dellin Betances and Ryan Pope to dangle to teams looking to stock there minor-league system with a starting pitcher.
Unfortunately, the stock of available veteran pitchers does not contain a starter of Lee’s pedigree. What the Yankees are likely looking for a pitcher who can pitch 200 innings, win 12 or more games and it would be a plus if the pitcher had some postseason experience.
The Phillies would love to unload Joe Blanton’s hefty contract. However, the Yankees may not want to pay the Phillies steep price for him. So Cashman may have to look at pitchers like Edwin Jackson or Paul Maholm. Neither of those confer the status of stars but are definite upgrades over Vazquez.
Or Cashman could play wait-and-see and look to make a trade deadline deal for a better pitcher like Carlos Zambrano, who the Yankees would love to pry from the Cubs if they are not in the pennant chase in 2011.
But with Pettitte out of the picture, it appears the Yankees are in no position to wait long. CC Sabathia is the unquestioned ace. Phil Hughes will look to build on his breakthrough 2010 campaign.
But what will A.J. Burnett offer? Is Ivan Nova ready as Hughes was in 2010? Do the Yankees really plan to use Sergio Mitre as their No. 5 starter?
This is probably the shakiest rotation the Yankees have had in many years. Cashman knows it needs fixing but it appears the arms to fix it are out of reach for now. But there is still time and Cashman knows his future is predicated on keeping the Yankees competitive.
He can’t afford to wait.