The Washington Nationals Sign Closer Rafael Soriano

In truly stunning fashion Tuesday afternoon, the Washington Nationals agreed to terms with free agent relief pitcher Rafael Soriano to a 2-year contract worth $28 million dollars and the deal also includes a vesting option for 2015 worth $14 million dollars if he finishes 120 games between 2013 and 2014.  Soriano will earn $7 million in both 2013 and 2014, and the remaining $14 million dollars will be made in deferred payments from 2018-2025, according to Jim Bowden of ESPN.com.  Earlier this winter Soriano opted out of his contract with New York to become a free agent, and the Yankees countered by offering him a 1-year qualifying offer, meaning the Nationals must sacrifice their 2013 1st round draft choice as compensation for signing him as a free agent.

Rafael Soriano, 33-years-old, took over the Yankee closer role in 2012 after Mariano Rivera suffered a season-ending knee injury, and posted a 2.26 ERA and 69 strikeouts against 55 hits and 24 walks allowed while collecting 42 saves in 67.2 innings last season.  For his 11-year major league career, Soriano has a 2.78 ERA, 1.046 WHIP, an outstanding 3.29 K/BB ratio, and 132 saves in 502 total innings pitched.  Particularly impressive, Soriano for his career averages 6.5 hits allowed per 9 innings, gives up only 2.9 BB/9 innings, and has limited right-handed hitters to a .170/.229/.280 career batting line.  Soriano’s repertoire includes a 92-95mph fastball, a truly devastating swing-and-miss 82-84mph slider, and an occasional heavy 93-94mph sinker, which in addition to his averaging 55.7 appearances per year over the last seven years, has established him as one of the best relief pitchers in baseball.

Soriano now enters the Nationals relief corps as the likely closer and will team with Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard to form one of the deepest and most impressive trios of relievers in baseball, and shifts Craig Stammen, Christian Garcia, Ryan Mattheus, and Henry Rodriguez to right-handed middle relief roles.  Not that the Nationals bullpen was an area of concern, but considering Storen is coming off a season in which he had elbow surgery and pitched only 30.1 innings and Clippard had a 5.60 ERA in the 2nd half of the season and has pitched 312 innings the past 4 seasons, adding another reliever to lighten the workload of Clippard and Storen makes a great deal of sense.  Furthermore, the Nationals relief corps pitched the 7th most total innings (515.1 innings) in 2012 and showed signs of fatigue down the stretch in September and October, so signing Rafael Soriano adds excellent depth to the bullpen and noticeably improves the overall roster in their quest to win the World Series in 2013.

Clearly the addition of Soriano makes the Nationals roster stronger, which is not easy to do after a 98 win season and an offseason in which they already added Dan Haren and Denard Span, but the 60-70 innings that Soriano will pitch next season rather than other “lesser relievers” potentially makes the team 1.0-1.5 wins better in 2013.  Furthermore, this should give the Nationals additional leverage in any ongoing Mike Morse trade talks, as the team’s only noticeable flaw was filled by adding Soriano to the relief corps.  However, the Nationals are making an extraordinarily high financial commitment with this signing to noticeably, but marginally improve the roster over the next two seasons and I worry about the impact this has on the payroll and player decisions next offseason.

Certainly the distinction must be made that there is no valor in building the best team possible with the smallest amount of money spent, Mike Rizzo’s job is to build the best team he can within the payroll given, while keeping an eye toward the future of the organization.  That said, I hesitate to support this deal more strongly because I first would argue the Nationals front office could have distributed these dollars in a different fashion to improve the team more than the 2-3 wins Soriano will give you over the next two seasons and more importantly, I fear the consequences of forfeiting their 1st round selection next June and thus the likelihood of an underwhelming 2013 draft class and the long-term ramifications of further depleting an already weakened farm system.  Granted the prospects in the 2013 draft do not look especially appetizing at this point, but considering the 2012 class appears somewhat thin aside from 1st round pick Lucas Giolito, who has already undergone Tommy John surgery, taking out the Nationals top pick next June could make it two mediocre draft hauls in a row.  Therefore, while in the short-term this makes the Nats a stronger team, I fear the long-term costs enough that I have qualms about fully supporting this move from the Nationals.

NatsGM Grade –>          C to C-

3 thoughts on “The Washington Nationals Sign Closer Rafael Soriano”

  1. Just want to say how much I always enjoy reading your comments and analysis. I’m not a poster but am an avid reader. Your analysis is always balanced and often provides additional context beyond the traditional press. I particularly liked the “no valor” part combined with expected incremental wins along with Clips second half ERA ( I knew he struggled but didn’t realize he has 5+ ERA).

    One aspect which I don’t fully grasp and haven’t seen broken down is the NPV impact from the deferred dollars in real terms. Does this flag potential concern for future luxury tax or was it a face saving gesture for Boras/Soriano once the market failed to materialize? I think Bonilla may still be getting paid by the Mets and wonder how prevalent/beneficial this structure is to both players, agents and teams.

  2. We probably should wait until the other shoe falls. The trade. In order to sign Giolitio in last season’s draft the Nats ended up later drafting players who carried the attribute of signability versus raw talent. That isn’t the way the Nats had been drafting in the 2 years leading up to last year’s draft. They were drafting high-end talent in the lower rounds and over-slotting their bonuses to the point where Selig changed the rules.

    So, now what do you do? Perhaps you use previously drafted talent for which you won’t have space on the roster for A level prospects with high ceilings? Particularly starting pitchers?

    This might all be part of a grand strategy to set up exactly that kind of trade scenario. Starting pitching can take up to 2 to 3 years to develop starting from the ground up. Position players longer. The Nats now have an overflow of starting position players who are talented, inexpensive, controllable. Perhaps they use them in lieu of the draft this time out..

  3. Regarding the deferred compensation, it’s a VERY smart thing for Soriano to do as it gives him security as he enters his 40s and presumably will no longer be an active player. We can scoff that guys who make as much money as he does would need such security, but far too many pro athletes end up broke within just a few years after they retire.

    It could also be a very smart move for the Nats assuming they handle it right. Not only does it halve the payroll hit for the next two years at a time when most of their young players will be getting big raises as they hit arbitration eligibility, they almost certainly plan to invest the deferred money in such a way that they will actually make a big profit. That’s what the Mets were trying to do with Bonilla. Problem is, they gave the money to Bernie Madoff. Presumably the Lerners are smarter business people than Fred Wilpon.

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