The sting from the wrenching, bitter end of the Washington Nationals' first playoff run might 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 reached a two-year, $28million contract, which makes Soriano the highest-paid reliever in baseball during the 2013 season. The contract also includes a $14million 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 couldn't hold a six-run lead in Game 5 of the National League Division Series.
The bullpen let the game slip away, slowly at first and then suddenly, when a two-run lead in the ninth inning evaporated. 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, whom Soriano played for in 2012, gave him a one-year qualifying offer, which means the Nationals will forfeit their first-round draft pick — No.29 overall — and the bonus pool money attached to the selection. The surrender of a pick shows the seriousness of the Nationals'emerging win-now mentality under general manager Mike Rizzo, a former scouting director who calls draft day "my Super Bowl."
Last season, Soriano replaced the injured Mariano Rivera and saved 42 games for the Yankees with a 2.26 ERA and 69strikeouts in 672/3 innings. He has been 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 Tampa Bay Rays and Yankees, allowing four earned runs over 12innings.
Soriano's addition bolsters the back of a bullpen that already 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 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 might have to adjust to lesser roles after dominating late-inning situations when healthy the past two seasons, and Johnson — a former Orioles manager and player — might have to work to keep all his relievers productive and happy.
The move also 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.