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MLB Free Agents 2013: How Rafael Soriano Became the Highest-Paid Relief Pitcher

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MLB Free Agents 2013: How Rafael Soriano Became the Highest-Paid Relief Pitcher
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At $14 Million, Soriano is the highest-paid relief pitcher in MLB

Upon signing a two-year, $28 million contract with the Washington Nationals on January 15th, Rafael Soriano became the highest-paid relief pitcher in baseball. 

Soriano’s 2012 resume is stellar.  He took over the closing duties for the New York Yankees in place of the legendary Mariano Rivera in May.  

The hard-throwing right-hander nailed down 42 saves with an ERA of 2.26 and a WHIP of 1.167.  Although he was only gently used in the postseason, with 4.1 innings pitched and no saves, he proved up to the task by not allowing a single run. 

But while his recent credentials are without a doubt impressive, this major move raises the following question: How did Rafael Soriano become the highest-paid relief pitcher in MLB?

Imagine if you could choose any closer in baseball to sign to your team.  Who would you pick? 

For most, Soriano would come a few names down the list.  While there is no doubt that he is a great pitcher, he is by no means the best closer in the game, and he should not be paid as such. 

However, there are other factors that come into play.  Namely, who are the free agents available within the next few years, and which teams are desperate for a closer to take them over the top. 

In 2013, Rafael Soriano happened to fit that bill perfectly. 

Elsa/Getty Images

In order to get to this position, needless to say, a lot had to go right for Soriano in the past few years. If Mariano Rivera had not gotten hurt last season, Soriano wouldn’t have had the opportunity to take Rivera's role and prove himself as a closer again after being a set-up man for the Yanks in 2011. 

 

In addition, the closer’s job was initially given to David Robertson after Rivera went down.  If Robertson had not failed to hold the job, Soriano would not have been able to prove himself. 

Soriano was signed by the Seattle Mariners in 1996 out of his native Dominican Republic as a strong-armed outfielder.  He rose up through the minor leagues and made his major league debut in 2002 as a pitcher, having been converted in the minor leagues after failing to impress with the bat.

Soriano moved from Seattle to Atlanta on December 7, 2006 in a trade for Horacio Ramirez.  This proved to be a pitiful trade for the Mariners, as Ramirez put up a 7.16 ERA in his lone season in the Pacific Northwest.  Meanwhile, Soriano was given his first chance to be the full-time closer while with the Braves

Soriano was frantically traded from Atlanta to Tampa Bay on December 10, 2009 in exchange for Jesse Chavez after he surprisingly accepted arbitration.  During his one season with the Rays, Soriano led the American League in saves with 45.  It was then that he appeared in his only All-Star game. 

Was Soriano worth the money?

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After a stellar season in Tampa Bay, Soriano signed with the Yankees as a free agent, inking a very unusual three-year contract worth $35 million. The unusual part was not in the money, but rather the opt-out clause after the first and second years of the deal, which would allow Soriano to become a free agent after any year of the contract he saw fit. 

Soriano took advantage of his contract this offseason, opting to become a free agent and forfeiting a guaranteed $14 million salary for 2013.

Throughout his career, there was another factor aside from sheer talent in determining why Soriano is making the money he’s making.  That reason: Scott Boras.

 

Soriano signaled his desire to make the big bucks in September 2010 when he let go of his longtime agent Peter Greenberg and made the switch to super-agent Scott Boras. But this move was more than just an MLB fun-fact; when you make a change to Scott Boras, you are signaling to the baseball world that your main goal is to get paid. 

As he does more often than not, Boras was able to make that dream come true for Soriano.  In the winter of 2010, Soriano left the tight-pursed Rays for the notoriously high-spending Yankees, undoubtedly aided by Boras

So, the question remains: Does Rafael Soriano deserve to be the highest-paid relief pitcher in the major leagues? 

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Probably not. 

In the majors, however, the correlation between what a player makes and how much he’s actually worth isn’t an exact science. Alex Rodriguez is the highest-paid player in baseball, and he hasn’t been close to the MLB’s best player in several years. 

Being paid top dollar has more to do with a number of factors all lining up perfectly.  Namely, it has to do with reaching free agency as the best player available at your position when one of the higher-paying teams happen to need someone to fill an opening. Not to mention having the right agent to extract the cash from the clubs. 

Current youngsters such as Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel don’t have enough service time to be paid for their dominance on the mound.  Instead, Soriano, having paid his dues and proven his value as a player, is showered with dollars if only for being in the right position at the right time. 

What’s left for Soriano now is not simply to prove that he is worth the money, but to be the final piece of the puzzle for a Washington World Series run. If he can give Washington the boost it needs to make it to the World Series, he will be worth far more to the team than $14 million a year.  

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