Coming into the offseason, Rafael Soriano had a choice: return to the Yankees in 2013 for $14 million, or opt out, collect $1.5 million, and become a free agent. Consensus around these parts was that Soriano should stay put. Soriano opted out. The Yankees extended to Soriano a $13.3 million qualifying offer, and there was a strong argument that Soriano should accept it and stay with New York. Soriano turned it down and entered the market with compensation reducing his appeal. Many of those players who declined qualifying offers have struggled to find the contracts they wanted. For a while, Soriano’s market, at least publicly, wasn’t developing. It was unclear for a while what was going to happen to Rafael Soriano, and it was easy to conclude that he’d made the wrong decisions.
Soriano just signed a two-year contract with the Nationals worth $28 million. He turned down $14 million over one year, a year in which he wouldn’t close much, and ended up with $14 million over two years, years in which he’ll at least initially be the closer. There’s also a $14 million vesting option at the end, just in case the contract wasn’t good enough for Soriano already. Soriano, and his agent Scott Boras.
Over the offseason, I’ve been trading texts with someone who had a vested interest in where Soriano would ultimately end up. The texts were usually more question than answer, as we couldn’t identify a probable front-runner for his services. Detroit seemed obvious, but Detroit denied interest. Toronto seemed like a possible dark horse. We never identified Washington, although in hindsight, maybe we should’ve. With Scott Boras, it’s not so much about need; it’s about Boras’ ability to convince an organization of its need. It’s evident that Boras and the Nationals have a good relationship, and this is just the latest chapter.
The lesson here isn’t to never doubt Scott Boras. Boras is a fantastic agent, but he isn’t a perfect agent, and he won’t always get his clients what they’re looking for. We’ll see what he does with Kyle Lohse, and we’ll see what he does with Michael Bourn. Those guys might still have to settle. But we figured Soriano would have to settle until he didn’t, and this is Boras’ genius. He’s powerful and he’s persuasive, and he can make something out of very very little. With different representation, Soriano might today be in a very different situation.
If the ends justify the means, Soriano was right to opt out and decline the qualifying offer. He got his multi-year contract. But this isn’t the only justification; this way, Soriano got to enter the market having just been a closer, whereas a year from now he presumably would have given way to Mariano Rivera. That would’ve reduced his value, even though he’s demonstrated that he’s able to close at multiple points in his career. It wasn’t completely irrational. Clearly.
Now, Soriano is a reliever. We can probably agree that he’s a non-elite reliever, and he’s 33 years old with an injury history. Let’s ignore the vesting option; that kicks in if Soriano finishes 120 games between 2013-2014, and Soriano’s never finished 60 games in a season once, let alone twice, let alone consecutively. That’s probably not much of a factor. Still, I think we have to conclude that Soriano probably won’t be worth this contract. No matter how you figure reliever valuation, Soriano’s getting $14 million a year for two years. He’d have to be incredible to be worth that, and then there’s also the matter of the lost draft pick.
But if you begin with the premise that $28 million for two years for Rafael Soriano is maybe a little too risky, you can figure out for whom it’s the least too risky. For which team would that contract make the most sense? And I think the Nationals are the answer. If someone had to gamble on Soriano as a free agent, the Nationals make a whole lot of sense.
Nevermind that the Nationals already had a closer, if not a couple of them. Relievers can occupy different roles, and all of them are important. The Nationals, last year, finished with the best record in baseball, so the pick they’re surrendering is the pick at the end of the first round. As first-round picks are concerned, theirs is the least valuable. There are teams out there with protected high first-round picks, but those teams aren’t really in the market for an aging closer.
Then there’s the matter of the Nationals arguably being the best team in baseball right now. It’s close, and there’s a lot of error-bar overlap, but the Nationals are among baseball’s top World Series contenders in 2013 and, presumably, 2014. They have the most to gain from roster improvements, and Soriano makes them better today. It’s clear now they had money to spend, and looking at their roster, it’s not like there are a lot of areas for improvement. They’re solid all the way around, and they could’ve used a bullpen boost and a rotation depth boost. Soriano is their bullpen boost. The Nationals’ bullpen now has more overall ability, and a greater ability to withstand injury or under-performance. The Nationals signed Soriano with both the regular season and the playoffs in mind.
This also has the side benefit of giving the Nationals a little more flexibility in Michael Morse trade negotiations. There’s less reason for them to target a late-inning reliever, and they’re now more able to consider moving Morse for a prospect or two. Or a fifth or sixth starter. Soriano doesn’t change everything about the Morse talks, but it’s a factor.
Drew Storen is a good reliever, nevermind his postseason meltdown. Tyler Clippard is a good reliever, too, and so is Craig Stammen. Soriano is another good reliever. He struck out a quarter of the batters he faced in 2012, and he’s coming from a small park in the American League. He could get hurt or he could underperform, but he does make the Nationals a better team, and doing that was a challenge given the way the Nationals’ roster already looked. And those other good relievers will still throw their higher-leverage innings. There’s room for Soriano, basically.
Mathematically, this is probably an overpay. The Nationals are in a situation where they don’t have to worry too terribly much about a slight overpayment. They’re fantastic, and a World Series championship justifies an awful lot. They’re in a better spot now.