As the Cubs contend for a playoff spot, one area that's drawn particular scrutiny is their bullpen, with manager Joe Maddon recently going the closer-by-committee route and using different pitchers to save each of the team's last three wins. Soon, a fourth option will join the mix, as the team has signed Rafael Soriano to a minor-league deal.
The 35-year-old Soriano spent the past two seasons with the Nationals, saving 75 games and pitching to a 3.15 ERA and 3.38 FIP with 7.7 strikeouts per nine. But after a stellar first half of 2014 (0.97 ERA, 2.48 FIP, 22-for-24 save opportunities), he was dreadful after the All-Star break, posting a 6.48 ERA and 4.05 FIP with five blown saves in 15 opportunities. By early September, he lost the closer's job to Drew Storen, whom he had displaced from that role upon signing a two-year, $28 million deal with the Nationals in January 2013.
That deal, as well as Soriano's previous three-year, $35 million pact with the Yankees (which he opted out of after the 2012 season) were both signed less than a month before pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, on Jan. 17th and 18th, respectively. Both represented top-of-the-market deals—the Washington one carried the highest average annual value of any active reliever—and were straight out of the playbook of agent Scott Boras: Wait for the number of viable options on the market to dwindle, then find a team willing to pay top dollar.
As noted several times in this space, however, the market for closers making $10 million or more per year has dried up. Of the 17 such deals in history, only four are currently on the books: those of Jonathan Papelbon ($12.5 million AAV through 2015), David Robertson ($11.5 million AAV through '18), Craig Kimbrel ($10.5 million AAV through '17) and Joe Nathan ($10 million AAV through '15). Papelbon's hefty salary (and a $13 million vesting option for '17) has been an obstacle to dealing him amid the Phillies' belated rebuilding effort, while that of Kimbrel led to a trade to the Padres amid the Braves' sudden turnabout. Nathan more or less pitched his way out of the role before succumbing to Tommy John surgery in April.
Given Soriano's recent decline and unemployment more than one-third of the way into the new season, it seems clear that Boras' magic was no longer applicable in this case, so it's worth noting that the pitcher fired the agent at the end of May, switching to Alan Nero and Ulises Cabrera of Octagon Baseball. At various points both before and after the change, the Twins, Tigers, Marlins, Blue Jays and Cardinals were among the teams showing interest, though not likely at a price comparable to Soriano’s recent salaries. Via the Washington Post's James Wagner, Soriano's new deal features a pro-rated portion of a $4.1 million base salary with up to $4 million in incentives tied to appearances and games finished. With the season past the one-third mark, that's less than $3 million guaranteed even if Soriano joins the Cubs immediately, though more likely he'll make a handful of minor league appearances and join them later this month.
At 30–25, the Cubs are running second in the NL Central by 6 1/2 games but hold a percentage point lead for the second Wild Card spot. The bullpen's 3.68 ERA and 3.73 FIP both rank 10th in the league, their 0.8 homers per nine 11th—not great, but hardly crisis level. In fact, the team is 22–0 when leading after seven innings. Hector Rondon, who saved 29 games for the Cubs last year, converted eight of his first nine save opportunities through May 14, but since blowing two of his next three, he's notched just one save, that on June 4 against the Nationals. In his next appearance two days later, Rondon was pulled from a save chance after walking the first batter he faced, with Pedro Strop coming on to finish the job. The next day, Rondon pitched the eighth inning while Jason Motte handled the ninth, notching his first regular-season save since Oct. 3, 2012 as a member of the Cardinals.
Neither Rondon (2.96 ERA, 3.33 FIP, 7.8 K/9) nor Strop (3.46 ERA, 3.27 FIP, 10.0 K/9) nor Motte (3.80 ERA, 4.29 FIP, 5.9 K/9) has been particularly dominant, so Maddon, who's in his first year at the helm of the Cubs, has taken it upon himself to go where few managers fear to tread: mixing and matching in the ninth while sounding like a crotchety sexagenarian. Via ESPN's Jesse Rogers:
Can a relief staff get messed up if they don’t know their roles from day-to-day? It wouldn’t be the first time.
"I’ve been through that,” Maddon said. “I think it’s a product of the millennials. I think it’s that generation that really needs definition consistently.
"How’s ‘be ready to pitch in the last three innings?’"
Maddon's not wrong with regards to the fact that relievers tend to prefer set roles—the main argument against going with a closer-by-committee approach—but that it makes more sense for a manager to take a more matchup-centric approach, at least when he has the luxury of multiple options at his disposal. Via Rogers, Motte ("We're ready whenever the phone rings") and Rondon ("We're on the same page") both appear to have bought into the current approach, which is good, but such situations generally don't hold up for very long.
Teams as disparate as the Mets, Rockies and Yankees made noise about mixing and matching early in the season, but after brief periods of uncertainty, they've each settled on a go-to guy. Jeurys Familia has 17 of the Mets’ 19 saves in the wake of Jenrry Mejia's PED suspension; John Axford has 10 of the Rockies’ 16 saves while the owners of five of the remaining six are now on the disabled list; and Andrew Miller has 17 of the Yankees’ 20 saves, with Dellin Betances having returned to the primary setup role.
It remains to be seen where Soriano fits into the Cubs' plans. He's the most proven of the team's closer options, but not the only one, and to get back to the ninth, he'll have to show both that he's in shape and past last year's late-season hiccups. In the meantime, it's worth keeping an eye on how Maddon dishes out ninth-inning duties, and how his charges respond.