NEW YORK -- Jeff Nelson was in uniform every night in 1996 as Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland formed a lethal late-inning combination, bringing the Yankees all the way to a World Series title.
It was a tag team that lasted only one season, as Rivera then accepted the closer's role that he has never left. But now that the Yankees have added Rafael Soriano as a setup man, they may own their best shutdown bullpen since '96.
"I think it gives them the best potential to have it, absolutely," said Nelson, who is now a baseball analyst for MLB.com. "Adding Soriano is huge. I really think it gives them something that they haven't had in a long, long time.
"You bring in a guy that led the league in saves last year, and I think it gives them a lot of good options. With the inability to have a solid starting rotation, it definitely helps out to have a solid bullpen. I think that's what they have."
In 1996, Wetteland saved 43 games and Rivera posted a 2.09 ERA in 61 appearances. Adding Soriano (45 saves, 1.73 ERA in 2010) with Rivera (33 saves, 1.80 ERA in '10) could shorten games for today's Bombers the way it did for that championship club.
Spending on saves
Rafael Soriano's three-year contract with the Yankees has an annual salary that places him fifth on the all-time list for relievers, shown in millions. Soriano is the highest-paid primarily non-closer, who are bolded below.
"We had a good starting rotation, but it gave us the opportunity to have six-inning games," Nelson said.
Yet before we go overboard with comparisons, there are key differences. The Yankees' 2011 rotation is not considered a strength, with CC Sabathia leading a pack that figures to include Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett, Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre.
Their inability to land top target Cliff Lee forced the Yankees to think instead about locking down the bullpen for manager Joe Girardi, which Soriano could do. That may be especially important if the 41-year-old Rivera begins having aches and creaks.
"Mariano is getting up there in age," Nelson said. "I know Girardi, and even [Joe] Torre in the later years, wanted to try to do their best to stay away from asking him for anything more than three outs. Having Soriano there definitely does that.
"If Mo gets tired, you don't need to use him three days in a row, and you can give Soriano a few saves now and then. It's something that should give a lot of confidence to Girardi."
But unlike Rivera in 1996 (or, for that matter, in 2010), Soriano only had one appearance of more than three outs for Tampa Bay last year. He also won't get anywhere near the 107 2/3 innings Rivera pitched in 1996, so Girardi will still need to ask for important outs from other relievers like Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson.
"I don't think you want to throw Soriano more than an inning," Nelson said. "He throws hard. He doesn't have a great offspeed pitch, so I think you want to limit him. But it shortens the game, and I think when you don't have a strong rotation, it helps to have guys in the bullpen and move everybody up."
With Soriano now on board, another option could be to stretch Chamberlain out as a starter, something that Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has said that he will not do.
Cashman has cited Chamberlain's drop in velocity during his starts, faring 12-7 with a 4.18 ERA in 43 starts in 2008-09. But Nelson believes the Yankees should reconsider their stance, given the scarcity of other available options at this time.
"I would go that route," Nelson said. "He's been in New York long enough that he can adjust. He knows the ups and downs of the fans and the media. I would go with Chamberlain, knowing that he has experience in the atmosphere, rather than bringing somebody else in that's been hurt. At least with Chamberlain, you know he can stay healthy and the only question mark is consistency."
Ultimately, Nelson said that he does not believe the Yankees' addition of Soriano is enough to close the gap on the Red Sox, whom he believes will run away with the American League East as long as they can stay healthy.
"I'd say there's the Red Sox and then there's everybody else in that division," Nelson said. "[The Yankees] are better than the Orioles and the Rays and the Blue Jays. They still have holes in that rotation, and pitching wins. But solidifying the bullpen is a huge step."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.