General manager Mike Rizzo left little doubt that Rafael Soriano will be the Nationals’ primary ninth-inning option for 2013. For the money they’re paying Soriano - two years and $28 million with a vesting option for a third year - that was pretty much predetermined.
Soriano doesn’t have the long history as a closer that Rizzo referenced in yesterday’s press conference at Nationals Park. He’s only closed games full-time since 2009, when he took over the role when the Braves designated Bob Wickman for assignment in August. That December, worried that they’d have to overpay him, the Braves shipped him to the Rays, where he saved 45 games, posted a 1.73 ERA and earned the American League Rolaids Relief Award. That led Soriano to the Yankees as a free agent the following offseason, though he settled for a role as Mariano Rivera’s set-up man. When Rivera went down with a season-ending knee injury, Soriano again stepped into the ninth-inning role, saving 42 of 46 games with a 2.26 ERA and 1.17 WHIP.
No, Soriano isn’t an experienced closer. But he is a good closer, good enough to supplant incumbent Drew Storen into a lesser role for 2013. At best, Storen (and perhaps Tyler Clippard) will be sharing the ninth inning. More likely, It’ll be Clippard in the seventh, Storen in the eighth and Soriano in the ninth - with Storen and Clippard occasionally spelling the newcomer. The bullpen was already a strength for manager Davey Johnson; now, it’s difficult not to look at the ‘pen and say it’s better.
But how long will this arrangement last? Rizzo said Thursday that Storen is a closer and there probably isn’t room for two (though Soriano has shown a willingness in the past to set up for the good of the team and for his bank account). Soriano has a vesting option for 2015 that is triggered if he finishes a total of 120 games during the first two years of the deal.
How likely is it that Soriano can do that?
The most games Soriano has ever finished is 56 in 2010. In his single season with Tampa Bay, the right-hander led the league in saves. Last year in the Bronx, Soriano finished 54 games. For his 11-year career, Soriano has averaged 35 games finished.
The math seems simple enough: If Soriano averaged 60 games finished over each of the next two seasons, he earns his third season in D.C. But that may be a more difficult task than it appears.
First, there’s the presence of Storen and Clippard, who have both functioned as closers during times over the past couple of years. Figuring that Johnson might employ A and B bullpens - with prearranged groupings of relievers set to work specific games - Soriano may have to share the saves. He’s not going to be used often in non-save situations like a traditional set-up guy. And having Storen and Clippard available gives Johnson multiple options, and chips away at Soriano’s opportunities.
When Storen recorded 43 saves in 2011, he had 52 games finished. Rivera, the best closer of all time, has reached or exceeded 60 games finished six times in his storied career, leading the AL in that category in 2004 with 69 and in 2005 with 68. But more recently, Rivera’s games finished totals have been down: 55 in 2009 and 2010, and 54 in 2011. In 2008, when Francisco Rodriguez of the Angels set the single-season major league saves record with 62, he appeared in 76 games and finished 69. The Phillies’ Jonathan Papelbon finished 64 games last year in his first season in Philadelphia; before that, he’d topped 60 games finished only once in the previous seven seasons.
What do we glean from these statistics? Managers treat star closers carefully, balancing their need for consistent work with the fear of overusing them. Think about it - that $14 million yearly salary is a worthwhile investment for a guy who locks down the ninth. Not so much for a guy who’s on the disabled list with a sore arm or bum shoulder.
Through his career, Soriano has been a give-me-the-ball type, reliable as he is effective. But Johnson won’t risk him, not with Storen and Clippard available. Even a 15-day stint on the DL could be enough to keep Soriano’s games finished totals beneath the threshold he needs to invoke his vesting option. Anything more than a minor injury probably means he’s a National for only two years.
And that’s probably what Rizzo was banking on all along. Storen, assuming there are no lasting psychological repercussions from his meltdown in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the National League Division Series, is the closer of the future (and, in the eyes of some in the organization, still the closer of the present). But over the next two years, he’ll essentially be an apprentice again. Soriano said yesterday that he looks forward to working with the Nationals’ young pitchers, imparting the wisdom he’s accumulated over his career.
Knowing Storen’s competitive streak, I imagine he’ll be champing at the bit, eagerly awaiting a chance in the ninth inning. For the Nationals, having two talented, aggressive, hard-to-rattle pitchers who can work the ninth is a most pleasant of conundrums. But in a town where politicians are always working on the next election cycle, Storen will be spending 2013 and 2014 preparing to succeed Soriano in 2015.