Yankees’ Decision to Not Sign David Robertson Makes No Sense

The dominant reliever has left the Yankees for the second time in his career

I have called David Robertson “David ‘Copperfield’ Robertson” since he got out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the 11th inning of Game 2 of the 2009 ALDS, leading to the Yankees’ walk-off win in the bottom of that inning. Robertson’s ability to pitch out of any jam became his best attribute, more than his long delivery, deceiving fastball and knee-buckling breaking ball.

After becoming a full-time Yankee in 2009, Robertson became the team’s primary setup man in 2011, pitching to 1.08 ERA and striking out 100 batters in 66 2/3 innings. He went on to do a nice job taking over as Yankees closer in 2014 (3.08 ERA, 39 saves, 96 strikeouts in 64 1/3 innings) in the first year without Number 42 and I thought the Yankees would do everything possible to bring him back. They didn’t, opting to sign Andrew Miller instead, even though I thought the Yankees should have re-signed both Robertson and Miller to go along with Dellin Betances rather than just signing Miller. And so Robertson signed with the White Sox for four years and $46 million.

Robertson was good for the White Sox in two-plus seasons, but when it was announced he was part of the trade for Todd Frazier to phase out Chase Headley, I was incredibly happy. Not only were the Yankees getting Frazier and essentially getting rid of Headley, but Robertson was returning to where he belonged.

After coming over from the White Sox, Robertson was nearly unhittable in 30 games for the Yankees. In 35 innings, he allowed only 14 hits and just four earned runs, while walking 12 and striking out 51, pitching to a 1.03 ERA and 0.743 WHIP. For as good as he was for the Yankees in his 2011 breakout season, he was even better in 2017 despite being six years older.

Robertson played a big part in saving the Yankees’ season in the 2017 AL Wild-Card Game, throwing a career-high 3 1/3 innings and 52 pitches to earn the win in the Yankees’ first postseason victory since CC Sabathia’s dominant performance in Game 5 of the 2012 ALDS. With the Yankees leading 4-3 in the third inning of the wild-card game, Robertson came on in relief of Chad Green, who left him with a bases-loaded, one-out situation. Robertson got the final two outs of the innings, allowing only one run, and in the bottom half of the inning, the Yankees took the lead for good on their way to the ALDS.

Robertson was great again in 2018, striking out 91 in 69 2/3 innings with the second-lowest WHIP of his career (1.033). His ERA rose to 3.23, though his 2.97 FIP and his strikeouts- and walks-per-nine showed he was better than that.

I thought after Robertson returned to the Yankees he would be a Yankee for as long as he continued to pitch the way he always had. It was hard to see him never leaving the team again because a once-dominant reliever can always find a one-year deal somewhere after his elite days are over, but I didn’t think he would be leaving the team, while he was still pitching the way he did at the end of 2017 and in 2018.

But now, for the second time, Robertson is no longer a Yankee. Four years after the Yankees let him leave for the White Sox, they have let him leave for the Phillies. Despite Robertson wanting to return to the team, despite him succeeded for so many years in New York, despite his ability to both set up and close games and despite his performance showing no signs of decline even as he nears his 34th birthday, the Yankees still chose not to re-sign him.

Robertson made $12 million in 2017 and $13 million in 2018. He will make $10 million in 2019 and $11 million in 2020 with a $12 million option or $2 million buyout for 2021. Even as one of the best relievers in all of baseball, and therefore, one of the top relievers in this free-agent market, Robertson is essentially taking a pay cut after a strong 2017 and 2018.

Two years of a healthy Robertson at $25 million, and the possibility of a third year at $12 million, appears like a steal. At his age, Robertson is looking for what could be his final payday in the league, and that means the Phillies’ offer was the best he received, which means his former team, the one he said he wanted to remain apart of either didn’t make him an offer or didn’t meet the Phillies’ number.

Robertson already passed a physical, so there’s no underlying injury or elbow ligament about to tear, which could have scared off the Yankees from committing to him for another two or three seasons. And the 69 2/3 innings he pitched in 2018 were a career-high for him, so it’s not as if he’s coming off of an injury-plagued season. The Yankees’ decision to not bring back Robertson makes no sense, unless the playoff shares story is a bigger deal than originally thought to be.

The Yankees reportedly held a team meeting in St. Petersburg before the end of the season in which the team voted on playoff shares for coaches and staff and the results of the vote included a few members of the organization not receiving full or even half shares. Robertson was supposedly the leader of the meeting, and while some thought the story was fabricated or leaked to hurt Robertson in free agency and a return to the Yankees, it’s hard not to think what happened affected his chances at a new contract with the Yankees.

It’s not the end of the world in a free-agent relief market which still boasts Craig Kimbrel, Zach Britton and Adam Ottavino, and it’s now a certainty the Yankees will sign at least one of those three. But the Yankees knew what they had in Robertson in their bullpen and they knew what they would get with Robertson in their bullpen. Now they have to hope whichever reliever they sign pitches like David Robertson.