Congratulations to Rafael Soriano. For the second time in three years, the ex-Rays All-Star closer has signed a contract the likes of which the Rays would never give to anyone. Soriano agreed to a 2-year, 24 million dollar contract with the Washington Nationals with a vesting option for a third year. The deal caused the Nationals to forfeit their first round draft pick in 2013 MLB Draft and give the New York Yankees a supplemental first round draft pick. Was it a bad contract? Different people would give you divergent answers but at the end of the day, only time will tell. We can say with certainty that the potential reward from the contract is quite high, but the Nats are also taking on quite a bit of risk.
Soriano is coming off an excellent season for the Yankees, managing a 2.26 ERA, a 9.2 K/9, a 3.2 BB/9, a 0.8 HR/9, and (fittingly enough) 42 saves in 69 appearances replacing the injured Mariano Rivera as the Yankees’ closer. After a season like that, he was due for a big payday and the Yankees rightfully offered him a 1-year, 13.3 million dollar qualifying offer so they could receive draft pick compensation in exchange for him. But obviously there’s no guarantee whatsoever that Soriano is going to repeat those numbers. Soriano turned 33 in December, not an old age for a reliever, but several concerns immediately come to mind. The first is that Soriano has a checkered injury history, undergoing Tommy John Surgery back in 2004 and missing time with elbow injuries in 2008 and 2011. Especially as Soriano gets up there in age, you never know when the next injury will strike. But isn’t the only thing the Nats have to worry about. Although Soriano’s ERA was a sparkly 2.26 in 2012, his FIP was a run higher at 3.24 and his xFIP was even higher at 3.67 as he was lucky to allow only 6 home runs all season. Soriano has out-pitched his xFIP by a run just about his entire career, managing a 3.69 career xFIP compared to his 2.78 career ERA, with the most notable difference being his 3.62 xFIP in 2010 compared to his 1.73 ERA. However, his ERA and xFIP were nearly identical when he had an off-year in 2011, and if that happens again, Soriano will be a much less valuable pitcher. Even beyond that, Soriano has seen his average fastball velocity go down the last three years, and he’s down from 94.02 MPH as recently as 2009 to just 92.91 MPH in 2012, a touch lower than his 93.03 MPH mark in 2011 even though he was no longer dealing with an injury. All that being said, Soriano has managed a 2.64 ERA, a 9.7 K/9, a 3.0 BB/9, a 0.7 HR/9, and 116 saves the last four seasons. If Soriano keeps up that level of production over the next two years for the Nationals, they will have gotten a great value despite Soriano’s lofty salary. However, if Soriano’s issues with injuries or fastball velocity surface again or if his luck on flyballs staying in the park finally runs out, the Nationals will look back at the deal with nothing but regret.
Since the 2007 offseason, the Rays have signed just three free agents to multi-year deals (not counting contracts with option years): RHP Troy Percival, OF/DH Pat Burrell, and most recently RHP Joel Peralta. Only Burrell’s contract guaranteed him more than 5 million dollars a year, and as we know it completely backfired. Since they began contending in 2008, the Rays rank second in baseball in bullpen ERA at 3.48- and that’s despite the fact that the low-cost deals for Percival and Peralta have been the only multi-year deals they have signed relievers to. The Rays have figured out a proven method to deliver one of the best bullpens in baseball year after thanks to a bevy of low-cost and low-risk free agent contracts given to players like Fernando Rodney, Kyle Farnsworth, and Peralta initially, shrewd trades to acquire players like Soriano, Grant Balfour, and J.P. Howell, and their minor league system yielding players like Jake McGee and Wade Davis. The Rays have certainly seen moves backfire- Chad Qualls and Josh Lueke come to mind- but they have taken so little risk in their pursuit of relievers that they’ve almost never found themselves attached to a reliever with a bad contract, and even the occasional disaster acquisition has been overshadowed by several other moves that worked to perfection. After the level of success the Rays have experienced the past several years finding relievers, the idea of paying any reliever, even one of the best in the game, anything remotely resembling big money (and many teams would call 5 million dollars “pocket change”) is an extremely foreign concept. That doesn’t mean that dishing out multi-year deals to build a bullpen doesn’t work, but as the Rays have shown, it’s far from the most efficient method. The Rays have been able to sign effective reliever after effective reliever for pennies on the dollar, and players like Soriano gotten their big paydays elsewhere only after the Rays finished squeezing out all the value they can possibly get from them. Maybe it evens out in the end- after getting almost criminally underpaid in the Rays’ bullpen for a year or two, several ex-Rays relievers have been to find lucrative multi-year deals elsewhere, and now Soriano has to be the poster child if he wasn’t before after signing his second big free agent contract at an annual value that makes the Rays wince.