The start of the baseball season is less than a month away. Every weekday until opening day, we'll be counting down, from No. 20 to No. 1, the most important Yankees players for the upcoming 2010 slate. Today, No. 1, closer Mariano Rivera.
Sometimes we're not sure that fans fully understand how good Mariano Rivera truly is. The idea that Joba Chamberlain, or Phil Hughes, or anyone else, really, could one day replace Rivera as the Yankees' closer and not immediately become the most disappointing player in baseball is crazy. With enough money, a great third baseman can be replaced by the next great third baseman, or at least the next really good one. But the Steinbrenner fortune won't be able to buy the next Mariano Rivera. There probably won't be one, at least not in our lifetimes. Here's a little experiment: Take a look at Rivera's career stats, and try to pick out his prime. We're not sure he has one: He's been in his prime for fourteen seasons now.
In the playoffs last year, the Yankees faced three competent closers: Joe Nathan, Brian Fuentes, and Brad Lidge. They got to all of them. Rivera, meanwhile, was as reliable as ever, at age 39. Seasons can turn on just a couple of close games, a couple of tense innings. (And we'd be remiss if we didn't mention that, on a couple of occasions, these tense innings didn't go Rivera's way.) But in the vast majority of them, the Yankees have had a competitive advantage that doesn't involve money. They've had Mariano Rivera as their closer. Everyone else has had Someone Who's Not Mariano Rivera.
Immediately after the World Series ended, Rivera said on live television that maybe he'd play another five years. He might not have been kidding. The sensible part of our brain says that there's no way he could pitch, at a high level, until he's in his mid-40s. But the sensible part of our brain said years ago that he was bound to decline as he hit his late 30s. We didn't factor in — or maybe we just didn't fully realize — that he's a once-in-a-lifetime freak of nature. Using the performance of other closers to predict how he'll fare late in his career is pointless. He has no peer.
Rivera's contract is up after this season, and we're sure he'll sign another one. At some point, Rivera's going to take the mound and find that his cutter just isn't good enough anymore. Maybe he'll start to lose it this year. Maybe it'll be sometime in 2013. But when it does happen, Yankee games will get a little longer — a ninth-inning save no longer something to be expected, but something to be hoped for. The front office will scramble to fill a position they hadn't had to think about since the Clinton administration. We wouldn't want to be the poor guy they tap. That decline, though, is going to happen. It has to. Doesn't it?