For his vacation this offseason, Nationals Manager Davey Johnson and his wife Susan took a 15-day tour in Africa this month. They visited South Africa, enjoyed Cape Town, went on a safari tour in Kruger National Park, admired Victoria Falls, saw seals and baboons, spent three days in wine country. “There’s great fishing down there,” he said.
While on his tour, the Nationals and Adam LaRoche ended their stalemate negotiations and reached a deal, a move Johnson had been lobbying LaRoche to make all winter. And this week, the Nationals made a stunning addition to their bullpen, signing free agent reliever Rafael Soriano to be their closer. A day later, they traded popular slugger Michael Morse to Seattle for prospects.
Meanwhile, in the Southern Hemisphere, Johnson received news of the Soriano signing in the form of an e-mail from General Manager Mike Rizzo. Johnson’s initial reaction?
“That kind of surprised me,” Johnson said Saturday night after receiving his National League Manager of the Year Award at the New York Baseball Writers’ Association of America dinner. He returned early Thursday morning from Africa. “I didn’t know we were needing a closer. I thought we were done” this offseason.
It’s not that Johnson doesn’t like the move, it’s just that now he has an even deeper bullpen that will require his careful managing. The Nationals already had a presumed incumbent closer in Drew Storen, who saved 43 games in 2011 but was slowed by injury last season, and another potential one in Tyler Clippard, who saved 32 games filling in for Storen. But Soriano came to Washington, as Rizzo said, to pitch in the ninth inning, meaning Storen and Clippard will be pushed earlier into the game.
“The guy that is most dominant as I’m concerned” will close, Johnson said. “As it stacks right now, [Soriano is] the No. 1 guy. But we’ll see how they throw.”
The Nationals added Soriano to bolster a solid bullpen — or to borrow Rizzo’s phrase, to strengthen a strength. Soriano was the best available reliever on the market and brings his career 2.78 ERA and 1.05 WHIP to a Nationals bullpen that squandered a lead in Game 5 of the National League Division Series and that some scouts said wore down late in the season.
In Johnson’s way of handling a bullpen, he likes having an ‘A’ and ‘B’ bullpen, a backup for every reliever’s role. Last season, the Nationals played many close games, high-stress innings for relievers. And if they win as many games as they hope to this season, there will be plenty of games for Soriano and others to close.
“I don’t know that much about him,” Johnson said of Soriano. “I know he knows how to pitch and gets people out.”
After Soriano signed, pitching coach Steve McCatty called Storen and Clippard, listening to and assuaging their thoughts and concerns. Johnson said he has yet to speak to either reliever.
“I’ve had it where the GM signed six good starters and I had a meeting in the outfield and say, ‘Okay, boys. I ain’t going to flip a coin. I’m going to go … you, you you … you’re in the bullpen, [Bob] Ojeda,” Johnson said, with a laugh. “Things change over the year. If you’re good, you expand the role. That’s all.”