The sting from the wrenching, bitter end of the Washington Nationals’ first playoff run may have faded for some by the dead of winter, but not, apparently, for the man at the very top of the organization, not for the 87-year-old real estate tycoon who grew up in Washington rooting for the Senators.
And so, less than a month before pitchers and catchers report to Viera, Fla., Ted Lerner acted. On Tuesday, according to a person familiar with the situation, the Nationals agreed to terms with free agent closer Rafael Soriano, a surprising, blockbuster addition to a now-stacked bullpen that signals the Nationals’ urgency to win a World Series this year.
The sides came to terms on a two-year, $28 million contract, which makes Soriano the highest paid reliever in baseball during the 2013 season. The contract also includes a $14 million option for 2015 that will vest if Soriano finishes 120 games combined over the next two seasons.
Lerner, one person familiar with the situation said, was directly involved in the negotiations that brought Soriano to Washington. He was surely motivated by the memory of the final game of last season, when the Nationals allowed a six-run lead to evaporate in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, leaving stunned silence at Nationals Park and bone-dry plastic sheets rolled up over lockers inside the home clubhouse.
The bullpen let that lead slip away, slowly at first and then suddenly in the four-run ninth inning, when a two-run cushion disappeared in a 9-7 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Nationals added Soriano, 33, to a solid-but-not-great bullpen with the express intent of preventing another pivotal, late-game meltdown.
The New York Yankees, Soriano’s team in 2012, gave him a one-year qualifying offer, which means the Nationals will forfeit their first-round pick — No. 29 overall — and the bonus pool money attached to the selection. For General Manager Mike Rizzo, a former scouting director who calls draft day “my Super Bowl,” the surrender of a pick shows the seriousness of the Nationals’ emerging win-now mentality.
Soriano’s addition bolsters the back of a bullpen that already includes incumbent closer Drew Storen — the man on the mound for the ninth inning of Game 5 — and 2011 all-star setup man Tyler Clippard, who saved 32 games last year. Soriano will presumably enter the 2013 season as the clear-cut top choice at closer, but there will likely still be some save chances for Storen.
Manager Davey Johnson believes in using an “A” and “B” closer in order to keep his best relievers healthy over a 162-game season. As a presumptive favorite to win the World Series, the Nationals should have ample save opportunities and plenty of reason to keep the back of their bullpen fresh. Still, Storen and Clippard may have to adjust to lesser roles after dominating late-inning situations when healthy the past two seasons — and Johnson may have to work to keep all his relievers productive and happy.
The move could allow the Nationals to trade a reliever from their deep corps. Then again, the most advantageous aspect of Soriano’s arrival could be the depth he provides. Late last season, several scouts echoed the belief the Nationals’ pitching staff tired late in the year. Combined with not only Storen and Clippard, but also Ryan Mattheus and Craig Stammen, the Nationals could avoid similar fatigue this year.
The Nationals have only one left-handed reliever, long man Zach Duke, signed to a major league contract next season. Lefty Bill Bray, who earlier this winter signed a minor league deal, will compete for a bullpen spot. Both Clippard and Mattheus have excellent “reverse splits” — as right-handers, they have been highly effective against left-handed hitters.
Last season, Soriano replaced the injured Mariano Rivera and saved 42 games for the Yankees with a 2.26 ERA and 69 strikeouts in 672 / 3 innings. He can be historically dominant — since 1900, only five pitchers with at least 500 innings have a better WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) than Soriano’s career mark of 1.05. He has some postseason experience, too — Soriano has appeared in nine playoff games for the Rays and Yankees, allowing four earned runs over 12 innings.
Soriano is a client of high-profile agent Scott Boras, with whom the team has worked to sign Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Stephen Strasburg, among others, to lucrative deals.
For Soriano to activate his vesting option for 2015, it would require rare excellence and stamina. Only Jose Valverde (137) and Craig Kimbrel (120) finished 120 games over the 2011 and 2012 seasons combined.
Once Soriano passes a physical and his signing becomes official, the Nationals’ opening day payroll should be between $115 and $120 million, an increase of nearly $40 million over last season. A closer at $14 million a year is a luxury item for a contender, not a necessity.
The Nationals, three years after losing 298 games over three seasons, have reached the point where they go for the luxury item. They are owned by a man who wants to win badly, a man for whom a long winter was not enough to forget what October felt like.