The Nationals seemed to have an excess of late-inning options already for this coming season, but their reported addition of closer Rafael Soriano on Tuesday makes the National League's preseason favorite for 2013 even more formidable.
Washington, a 98-game winner last year, had two relievers with 30-save seasons in its bullpen in Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen, not to mention a couple of other candidates (a group headlined by Ryan Mattheus) with the potential to pitch in the late innings. But agreeing to terms with Soriano -- for two years and $28 million, with a vesting option for a third year at $14 million, according to multiple reports -- deepens a position of strength for the Nationals. After all, Storen missed the start of last year with a bone chip in his elbow, and Clippard appeared to tire as the year went on, allowing 12 earned runs in his final 12 1/3 innings, as his season ERA ballooned by a run in September.
The salary being given to Soriano makes him the game's highest paid reliever by average annual value. That, and the fact that he saved 42 games with a 2.26 ERA and 9.2 K/9 for the Yankees last year, suggests he’ll be the closer with Clippard and Storen coming in before him. Even if the primary roles are in a different order, there will be sufficient high-leverage innings and save situations for everyone to share. After all, relief pitching is the game’s most volatile asset, so this move provides insurance at the end of the game.
For all their success last year, the Nationals weren’t an offensive juggernaut. They scored 731 runs, fifth-most in the NL, and in 77 of their 98 wins the margin of victory was four runs or fewer. Of that number, 64 were by three runs or fewer, which are save situations so long as the starting pitcher isn’t throwing a complete game, and even the four-run games, though not technically save situations, aren’t ones managers typically trust to the mop-up relievers. Washington also lost 38 games by one or two runs, which are also the type of games that might require one or more of the club’s best relievers.
While the compensation is hefty,there has been a mark-up for all players in this lucrative offseason, and the third-year option is unlikely to vest. It reportedly requires 120 games finished over the first two seasons, and Soriano has never finished more than 108 in back-to-back years. (Notably, Soriano becomes the sixth Scott Boras client on Washington’s 40-man roster, joining Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Danny Espinosa and Anthony Rendon.)
So while Soriano’s contract pushes the Nationals further into uncharted payroll territory, they should be in win-now mode anyway. They were a ninth-inning Cardinals comeback away from advancing to the NLCS -- that season-ending blown save probably didn’t hurt the emotional case for signing Soriano -- and still have all their core players under contract through 2015.
The whole point of closely monitoring Strasburg's innings and shutting him down last season was because the Nationals believe they have has a multi-year window of contention. Giving themselves the best chance to win now makes sense. -- By Joe Lemire