In Rafael Soriano signing, Washington Nationals go all-in


The Nationals have made Rafael Soriano the highest-paid reliever in baseball. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist January 15, 2013

The ownership of the Washington Nationals might as well have issued a public proclamation Tuesday by coming to terms with free agent closer Rafael Soriano: World Series or bust. Davey Johnson, 70, who’ll retire after this year, said it first. Now, owner Ted Lerner, 87, is all-in, too.

As Johnson’s wife, Susan, who has been on safari in Africa with her husband this month, says, “Old guys rule.” That sure seems to be the idea for 2013.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

The Nats owner, feathers ruffled on several fronts in recent months, just spoke loudly without saying a word. Let’s see a show of hands now: Who doesn’t think the Nats will ever have another chance to go to a World Series? Speak up. Soriano certainly seems like Lerner’s rebutal.

This deal had “owner-endorsed” written all over it. At $28 million for two years, it was a fairly expensive last-puzzle-piece statement by the team’s brass. The Nats now have Soriano, who saved 42 last season and 45 in 2010; Drew Storen, who saved 43 in 2011; and all-star Tyler Clippard, who saved 32 in ’12.

When last seen, the Nats were suffering one of the worst final-game blown leads in postseason history. A good but tired bullpen leaked fuel until finally the wrong Cardinals sparks lit the blaze. What psychological damage might linger? For a team that won 98 games, many of them high-stress one- and two-run games, were Storen and Clippard enough?

Few asked the bigger question: Why not outbid everybody for the Yankees’ closer, who also led the AL in saves for the Rays in ’10 (with a 1.76 ERA)? Reverse the question: What do you do with triple closers?

Suddenly, the Nats’ “window” of World Series opportunity looks more like a double-wide door or maybe the entrance to the rotunda. Things can always go wrong, but now there are even more ways they can go right.

You really don’t want to make things personal with Lerner, the wealthiest owner in baseball. Nobody had until last year. Then people started calling his team and his general manager names for shutting down Stephen Strasburg. They didn’t know that Lerner himself was the second-strongest advocate in counseling patience, behind Mike Rizzo.

“What was amazing is how we were vilified, like we were ruining the game of baseball,” one Nats decision-maker said.

Then, after the Nats blew Game 5 of the division series, the Cardinals said the young Nats were taking deep breaths and didn’t look ready for such a big-pressure game as they wasted a 6-0 lead. As this year began, Lerner was still frustrated over a long dispute with MASN about the fair TV rights for the Nats. Without financial certainty, would the Nats compete financially?

That is answered now. The Nats’ payroll, with Soriano the highest-paid reliever in baseball at $14 million a year, is roughly $115 million to $120 million— market-appropriate but perhaps edging into the game’s top 10.

Once sports owners experience victory, they get the bug. Even if they didn’t have it before, they catch it once they stand on their field celebrating a title, with the crowd standing and cheering, chanting everyone’s name. Maybe Lerner always planned to pay the price eventually to bring a World Series to Washington. But for certain, he was all-in after his Nationals clinched the National League East title in the last week of the ’12 regular season, a couple of years ahead of expectations.

As champagne and beer popped, Lerner kept smiling and finding hands to shake. “This is just the beginning,” he said.

Lerner, who’s quiet and doesn’t want people knowing what he feels, has more than a bug. He also has a burn — heartburn. But that indigestion — from anonymous executives with other clubs calling the Nats “the most hated team in baseball” because of their temerity in assuming Strasburg would have future playoffs in which to pitch — should be easing nicely after the last eight days. Whatever the mix of motives, his team has doubled down on “Natitude.”

Now, who are the biggest winners of the offseason? Maybe the Blue Jays or the Angels. Maybe the Dodgers, with ex-Nats president Stan Kasten looming as a deepest-pocket Washington rival.

But, now, with the addition of Soriano, right-hander Dan Haren ($13 million for ’13), center fielder Denard Span (in trade for a prospect) and the return of Adam LaRoche, the big winner might also be the Nats. After all, none of those other clubs are building off a 98-win base.

The MLB executive with the biggest capacity for run-silent surprise now may be Rizzo. No one anticipated his $126 million signing of Jayson Werth. His four-for-one Gio Gonzalez trade and February addition of Edwin Jackson last winter came out of the blue. Almost no one, except The Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore last week, had analyzed the logic of Soriano as a Nat.

Now, Rizzo has a roster with every player also under team control for the 2014 season, too. Only a couple can leave in 2015. That’s almost unheard of.

Is the bullpen big enough for Soriano, in his 12th big-league year, as well as Storen and Clippard? Or will team chemistry be a casualty? Is this a show of limited confidence in Storen, already stunned by final game loss? Will Rizzo use Michael Morse plus a reliever as building blocks in another big but perhaps destabilizing trade? The Nats have so many useful pieces that almost any deal can be constructed, at least in fantasy.

But that’s probably what it is: just a fantasy. It’s actually Johnson’s presence that may make the bullpen complexity more manageable. With both the Mets and Orioles, Johnson was known for bullpens with three and even four relievers who were, or would soon be, well-known names. His “A” and “B” bullpen theory, a necessity he thinks for teams at the 100-win level, just took shape — again.

Three years ago, the Nationals were coming off a 103-loss season. Now, they have one of baseball’s best rotations, best infields, best defensive outfields, best benches and, now, one of the best bullpens in the game, too.

Now, the Nationals, their owner and their fans are left with the last and the best of the all the major problems in pro sports: high and justified expectations. Learn to love the misery. It’s not going away for several years.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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