What Rafael Soriano agreeing to terms with the Nationals means

January 15, 2013

The Nationals pulled off a stunning transaction on Tuesday afternoon, agreeing to terms with free agent closer Rafael Soriano for big money, and suddenly creating a logjam of relievers, particularly late-inning pitchers. So, even though it’s still too early to tell, what does this all mean? An attempt to tackle it all:

>>> What happens to Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen?

By signing Soriano, now the Nationals have three relievers who can close. Before Tuesday, Storen seemed like the incumbent closer and Clippard as the setup man. But now, who takes what role?

Given the amount of money the Nationals are committing to Soriano — a two-year, $28 million contract with a $14 million option for 2015 — they are certainly paying him like a closer. Despite the volatility of closer and Rizzo’s recent reluctance to give relievers big money, they are showing they believe in the 33-year-old right-hander who saved 42 games for the New York Yankees last season.

So assuming Soriano is the closer, it appears the Nationals could be positioning themselves for a trade from a position of excesses. Storen, who is eligible for arbitration for the first time because of his Super Two status, could be headed for a payday of well over $1 million — less than previously expected because of an elbow injury that limited his innings and saves last season. Clippard, entering his second year of arbitration eligibility  made $1.65 million last year and could see more than double this season because he saved 32 games last season as he emerged as the team’s closer.

Nationals Manager Davey Johnson likes to have two closers, or as he calls them, an “A” and “B” closer. Storen could be the setup man ahead of Soriano, and could serve as the fill-in closer. Ryan Mattheus or Henry Rodriguez could serve as the seventh-inning guy, with Craig Stammen and Zach Duke as the right- and left-handed long relievers.

Clippard could be a good trade chip because his value is likely at its highest, he stands to make a lot more money next year and the Nationals have put a lot of innings on his arm over the past three years. Storen is under team control until 2017, a year longer than Clippard. And, given their two positions of excess, could the Nationals package Clippard and Michael Morse in a trade for prospects to replenish the farm system? Maybe for starters and a left-handed reliever? That, however, would mean that the Nationals lose Clippard, one of their right-handers with great splits against left-handed hitters. These are just thoughts, and much remains to be answered here.

>>> Why are there so many relievers now?

With Soriano’s agreement, the Nationals will have eight relievers on their projected opening day roster: Storen, Clippard, Soriano, Stammen, Mattheus, Rodriguez, Duke and Christian Garcia Henry Rodriguez. It appears, at first glance, that Garcia and Rodriguez would be the ones fighting for that final on the seven-man bullpen.

The Nationals want to try out Garcia as a starter in spring training and, depending on how he performs, he could help with the organizational depth they’ve been searching for at that position. If he doesn’t work out, the Nationals said he could become a reliever. With Soriano in the fold, that could be tougher for him.

The Nationals are also still high on Rodriguez, who is returning from elbow surgery late last season. He said then that he hoped to be ready for spring training, so Garcia could provide protection against any setbacks he suffers. Rodriguez could be the one who makes the major league roster because he is out of minor league options already, so optioning him would essentially mean losing him.

>>> What happens to the Nationals’ first-round pick?

Well, since the New York Yankees offered Soriano a qualifying offer and he turned it down, a first-round pick and the draft pool money that accompanies it is attached to him. So, the Nationals will surrender their late first-round pick, the 31st overall, and the Yankees will receive a compensatory pick.

The Nationals have put themselves in this situation, as a World Series contender, by building through the draft. Now, they depart from that philosophy, behaving like a contending team. They are spending on veteran players they believe will help them contend (Adam LaRoche and Soriano) and parting with prospects in trades for other pieces (Denard Span and Gio Gonzalez). In other words, they are behaving exactly like a contender does.

>>> Why Soriano?

His agent, Scott Boras, and Nationals owner Ted Lerner have a good working relationship, and Lerner was heavily involved in bringing Soriano to Washington, according to my colleague Adam Kilgore. Though the Nationals have only one left-handed reliever on their major league roster, and acquiring a second lefty has been a point of emphasis this offseason, Soriano was the best available reliever on the market. For the Nationals, it was about strengthening a strength and becoming dominant, creating options and sending a message that they are legitimate contenders for next season and beyond.

It’s worth revisiting Kilgore’s post from Jan. 6 where he made an argument for how Soriano may work.

NOTE: With Soriano, the Nationals’ 2013 opening day payroll may come close to $120 million. In 2011, it was nearly $68 million. This, too, is evidence of a team and particularly an owner looking to contend.

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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Adam Kilgore · January 15, 2013

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