Last June, Rafael Soriano sauntered into Nationals Park wearing the uniform of the New York Yankees and closed two victories against the Washington Nationals, complete with the ritual untucking of his shirt. He left with a new impression of the Nationals, whom he had faced often earlier in his career with the Atlanta Braves.
“They have changed 99 percent from the three years I played in the division,” Soriano said, speaking in Spanish in a corridor near the home clubhouse at Nationals Park. “From last year, I came, I saw a tremendous team, tremendous talent. I think there’s a great chance this year to win a World Series.”
On Thursday afternoon, Soriano came back to Nationals Park again, this time pulling a crisp, white No. 29 Nationals jersey over a silver suit. As he spun around for photographers, he said, “How’s it look, guys?”
Soriano looked every part of a $14 million closer, his long-limbed framed settling into a chair between General Manager Mike Rizzo and his agent, Scott Boras. The Nationals made official the two-year, $28 million deal Soriano agreed to earlier this week. While offering praise and support to incumbent Drew Storen, they heralded Soriano, 33, as their clear-cut closer entering spring, an additional weapon in the bullpen meant to push them to a championship.
“Suffice it to say, Raffy is here to pitch the ninth inning,” Rizzo said.
Rizzo, Boras said, first reached out to Boras about Soriano back in November after the General Manager meetings in Palm Springs, Calif. Owner Ted Lerner also involved himself in the negotiations. The Nationals may not have needed a closer with Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard in their bullpen. But they still added the best reliever on the market — a right-hander with a 2.78 ERA and 1.05 WHIP over his 11-year career — to make their relief corps as strong as the rest of their deep roster.
“Raffy was a good fit because he’s one hell of a closer,” Rizzo said. “You strengthen a strength and you keep moving forward and keep acquiring talent and assets to become the best ballclub you could possibly become.”
The stocked bullpen creates the need to shuffle roles. After Soriano signed, Rizzo said, pitching coach Steve McCatty called Storen and set-up man Tyler Clippard to let them know Soriano would handle the high-profile job they split last season.
“I’m certainly not worried about Clip or Drew,” Rizzo said. “They’re consummate professionals.”
In Game 5 of the NLDS, Storen squandered a two-run lead in the ninth inning, allowing four runs as the Cardinals completed a stunning comeback and won the series. Rizzo raved about Soriano’s playoff experience. but he also said Storen’s disastrous performance did not influence the decision.
“Drew Storen is a closer,” Rizzo said. “He’s going to be a closer. He’s got closer stuff. He’s got a closer mentality. And by no means the signing of Rafael Soriano was based on one inning and one game at the end of the season. This guy’s a young closer that was thrust into the closer role as a very young man and a very young major leaguer.
“We feel that we have multiple closers on this club that have the ability to close out games. One of them is going to close out the seventh, one will close out the eighth and one will finish the game in the ninth.”
Rizzo emphasized Storen would still have the opportunity to finish games under Manager Davey Johnson’s ‘A’ and ‘B’ bullpen system of keeping his top relievers fresh over a long season. If the Nationals win as many games as expected, then Johnson will have to shuffle closers to keep them strong.
Soriano opted out of his contract with the Yankees, Boras said, because he wanted the chance to close, an impossibility with Mariano Rivera returning in New York. The Yankees then made Soriano a qualifying offer, which means the Nationals forfeited a draft pick to sign him. Rizzo, a staunch believer in building through the draft, typically loathes surrendering high draft picks. But the Nationals would have picked late in the first round — No. 29 overall — and Rizzo’s staff evaluated this draft class as unusually thin.
“I think a few things were different this year,” Rizzo said. “We felt that where we were picking and the talent pool that was out there and the chance to acquire a talent such as Rafael, it was a good time for us to forfeit the pick.”
The Nationals followed their signing of Soriano by trading Michael Morse to the Seattle Mariners in a three-team deal that brought them back prospect A.J. Cole, the top prospect they shipped to Oakland last winter for Gio Gonzalez. Rizzo identified Cole, 21, as the player he wanted to pry loose in a deal, a pitcher who replaces the departed Alex Meyer in their prospect hierarchy. When Rizzo could not find a similar prospect in Seattle’s system, he convinced Oakland to get involved and deal Cole.
“He’s a big, strong man now,” Rizzo said. “Couple that with another couple of pieces we got in the trade, and we feel very fortunate to get the package we did for one year of Michael Morse.”
Soriano’s arrival, on top of the other moves the Nationals made this winter, also brought heightened expectations. Rizzo recognized the position the Nationals now occupy as one of the favorites, if not the favorite, to win the World Series.
“We’re going to have to learn how to deal with having the bull’s-eye on our back,” Rizzo said. “I think the maturity of the club will handle it. You’ve got a leader of the team who has been there before and knows how to do it and isn’t afraid of it. But we’re not sneaking up on anybody anymore. People know we have a good club and they’re going to be shooting for us every time out. It’ll be up to the players to react to that and to handle it in a way that positively motivates them and not negatively.”
Nationals note: The Nationals and reliever Drew Storen avoided arbitration by agreeing to a $2.5 million contract for 2013, according to an announcement made over Twitter by CAA Sports, Storen’s representative. Storen could make as much as an extra $1 million based on games finished, including a bonus $250,000 if he reaches 20 games finished.