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Rafael Soriano becomes the Nationals' top closer after signing a $28 million deal.
Were the Nationals a high-priced closer away from being a championship club? And if so, was Rafael Soriano the right guy to fill that all-important role? Check back in October, because we simply don't know the answer to either question right now.
The Nationals certainly didn't appear to be lacking in quality late-inning relievers. Drew Storen was stellar during his first full big-league season in 2011, then arguably was even better last September after making a full return from elbow surgery until one fateful October night against the Cardinals. Tyler Clippard, meanwhile, proved a perfectly capable fill-in closer during Storen's absence, converting 32 of 37 save opportunities, and still remains one of the best and most durable setup men in the game.
So there didn't appear to be a pressing need for Soriano, especially at the price he commanded: two years, $28 million (though half of that money is going to be deferred, paid out between 2018-2024).
Having said that, Soriano has a far more impressive track record than either Storen or Clippard, with 132 career saves, a 1.046 WHIP that ranks third all-time in the modern era among those with at least 500 innings pitched and an ERA that has exceeded 3.00 only once in seven full major-league seasons (2011, when he was injured).
Soriano also has appeared in the postseason each of the last three years, hasn't surrendered a run in any of his last five games and hasn't issued a walk in any of his 12 total games with the Rays and Yankees.
If experience counts for something in October -- and, by all accounts, it did three months ago -- Soriano has it.
There is, however, a disturbing history of relievers getting big contracts and not being worth the investment. Of the 20 highest-paid relievers in baseball history (based on average annual value), only Mariano Rivera pitched for a World Series champion (the 2009 Yankees). Of the 10 relievers in baseball history who have signed contracts worth at least $10 million per season, only Francisco Cordero and Jonathan Papelbon avoided serious injury (and Papelbon has three years left on his contract with the Phillies).
None of that guarantees Soriano will get hurt or won't record the final out of a World Series in a Nationals uniform. But it's worth noting the history of relievers who received such contracts.
The other aspect of Tuesday's out-of-nowhere signing -- what happens to Storen and Clippard -- is perhaps just as compelling as the actual Soriano deal.
The immediate assumption upon hearing about the contract was that either Storen or Clippard would become trade bait. That may yet happen, with Clippard perhaps more likely to be dealt than Storen because his salary will be a tad higher through the arbitration process. But there's nothing to prevent the Nationals from keeping all three, and there's some sound logic in the notion.
The Nationals managed to survive through Storen's three-month elbow injury last season in part because of the bullpen depth they amassed in spring training. While they certainly hope nobody is forced to miss similar time this season, they would be wise to prepare for the possibility.
And even if the entire relief corps stays healthy, there could be ample opportunities for all three late-inning right-handers to rack up significant appearances. Davey Johnson prefers to split up his bullpen into two units and isn't afraid to use multiple closers. That was his initial plan last season with Storen and Brad Lidge until injuries befell both right-handers (plus Henry Rodriguez) and left Clippard ultimately to inherit the role.
Soriano, based on his experience, would certainly get the first call to pitch the ninth inning. But Storen could find his way into a decent number of save situations as Johnson tries to keep all of his relievers fresh through a season that will be expected to surpass 162 games.
The larger concern might involve Storen's psyche and how he'll handle what obviously is a demotion. The 25-year-old already was going to face a challenge bouncing back from his Game 5 blown save. Now his mental game will be tested to even greater lengths.
If they're confident Storen can handle it all, the Nationals have the room to keep everyone in their Opening Day bullpen. Think of Soriano not so much as Storen's replacement but as Sean Burnett's replacement. Here's what Johnson's seven-man relief corps could look like come April...
RHP Rafael Soriano
RHP Drew Storen
RHP Tyler Clippard
RHP Ryan Mattheus
RHP Craig Stammen
LHP Zach Duke
RHP Henry Rodriguez/RHP Christian Garcia/LHP Bill Bray
Assuming Duke is safe to make the squad as Johnson's primary long reliever and emergency starter, that final spot will be up for grabs in spring training, with Rodriguez holding the upper hand because he's out of minor-league options.
Is there a glaring lack of lefties in that pen? Yes. Is that cause for major concern? Not necessarily, considering how effective Clippard, Mattheus and Stammen are against left-handed hitters.
Johnson's biggest challenge will be defining everyone's roles and making sure everyone's happy with them. That's no small task, though few managers over the years have proven more adept at bullpen usage than Davey.
In the end, a Nationals club that already boasted talent and depth at just about every position on the field added even more talent and depth to its roster. There should be no doubt any more that the entire organization, from Ted Lerner to Mike Rizzo to Johnson, is "going for it" in 2013.
The soon-to-be 70-year-old skipper set the tone last month at the Winter Meetings, authoring the "World Series or bust" motto.
Is Soriano the final piece toward making that motto a reality? Check back in October.