Patrick Reddington: An early test for a strengthened strength

The signing of Rafael Soriano came as a surprise to most, including Nationals manager Davey Johnson. Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore explored the possibility before the two-year, $28 million deal with the veteran reliever was announced, but the baseball world at large was caught off guard by the defending NL East champions’ decision to strengthen a strength and add another closer to an already strong bullpen that had helped them get within one strike of the National League Championship Series. Johnson was on safari in Africa this winter when he received the news that the Nationals had added the free agent closer to the mix in the bullpen.

“It kind of caught me a little bit by surprise,” Johnson later told reporters. “Any time you can add a quality player, I mean, it makes me smart.”

The move, Johnson said this spring, would give the veteran skipper options in the ninth inning.

“When you’re fighting for a pennant, a lot of times you can run off a lot wins in a row,” Johnson explained, “I’ve had closers. ... I always have had a backup closer. In here I actually have, in reality, I have three guys that have closed aside from (Soriano). So I have plenty of backup in case the workload (gets) too tough for (Soriano).”

Nats general manage Mike Rizzo assured reporters after Soriano was introduced to the nation’s capital in January that the move was not based upon one inning in the fifth game of the NLDS with St. Louis.

“By no means (was) the signing of Rafael Soriano based on one inning and one game at the end of the season,” Rizzo said.

But there were inevitably questions about whether or not the signing was a reflection of what the team thought of incumbent closer Drew Storen, who had battled his way back from elbow surgery last spring to reclaim his role as the Nats’ ninth-inning option only to struggle to throw strikes in the ninth inning of Game 5 the NLDS as the St. Louis Cardinals rallied for the devastating comeback win.

The addition of Soriano gave Johnson four closers to work with this year, as the Nationals try to get back to the postseason with Soriano, Storen, Tyler Clippard and even Henry Rodriguez, who saved nine games early last season before flaming out as the closer and eventually admitting to an injury.

Asked how the relievers would likely be used before the season started, Rizzo said it was simple: “One of them is going to close out the seventh, one will close out the eighth and one will finish the game in the ninth - and we feel pretty good about that.”

Soriano was brought in to close, however. Rizzo was clear about that from the start. Through nine game this season, Soriano has been the main ninth-inning option, locking down five of six opportunities thus far, including the last three games against the Chicago White Sox. Since he’s pitched in six of nine games so far this season though, Johnson told reporters after last night’s win that he will likely go with another option if he needs a closer in the series opener with Atlanta tonight.

After Thursday’s win, Johnson said he “was tempted to go another route,” but Soriano, he said, “hadn’t cried uncle for me yet. But it’s possible, I kind of stayed off Storen for that main reason.”

With the Braves in the nation’s capital for a three-game weekend set, the Nationals will turn to their B closer if they need one tonight. Though it’s early in the season, the situation is a perfect example of why the Nats did what they did this winter. With their closer working multiple days in a row, they have an option to turn to with 52 career saves on his resume. The Nationals’ 33-year-old, $28 million closer gets a night to rest and the team has a 2009 first-round pick ready to take the mound in ninth at Nationals Park if necessary.

The decision to bring Soriano in may not have been a statement on their faith in Storen’s abilities, but it did, barring any injuries to their relievers this season, ensure that Johnson would have more options this year when it comes to the ninth. Strengthening a strength by adding the top closer on the market to an already strong pen - that’s the sort of move made by a team that plans on playing important games in September and October.

Patrick Reddington blogs about the Nationals for Federal Baseball and appears here as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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