Tampa Bay Rays Stun Fans and AL Competitors with Big Back-End Move

JC De La TorreAnalyst IIIDecember 11, 2009

ATLANTA - AUGUST 22:  Closing pitcher Rafael Soriano #39 of the Atlanta Braves celebrates after defeating the Florida Marlins 4-3 on August 22, 2009 at Turner Field in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

When discussing the team's budget and off-season plans Rays Principal Owner Stu Sternberg told us, "There's not a $7 million dollar closer coming."

Oh those tricky Rays. Just when you think you have them (and their budget) figured out, they pull off the mega deal of the winter meetings. The team that said it would never devote a large portion of it's payroll to a closer just acquired one of the best from last season in Atlanta's Rafael Soriano.

Soriano compiled some sparkling numbers this season: a 2.97 earned-run average, 102 strikeouts (against 27 walks) in 752/3 innings, and a .194 opponents batting average, including .138 vs. right-handers and .153 with runners on base, fourth-best in the majors.

Most importantly, 27 saves, with just four blown saves. Finally, the hand wringing at the end of games is over for Rays fans. The Rays' 22 blown saves were eighth most in the majors last season, their 65.1 save percentage (41-of-63) was good (or is it bad?) for 18th.

Atlanta used Soriano as a closer and a setup man for most of the season, he appeared in a career high 77 games last year, but the Rays expect him to be more effective in a more defined role as the team's closer.

How did Tampa Bay swing this deal? Well, it took a little luck. Atlanta signed battle tested closer Billy Wagner and offered arbitration to Soriano. They expected Soriano to test the market and refuse arbitration. If any team signed him, they would get a first round draft pick in return. But to their shock and dismay, Soriano accepted arbitration and the one year, $7 million price tag that came with it.

With Wagner already in the fold, Atlanta had no choice but to deal the right-hander. What made this deal the most shocking is that it was the Tampa Bay Rays who rose up and took advantage of the Braves misfortune.

For Soriano, Tampa Bay traded recently acquired Jesse Chavez, so in a sense they didn't give up much for him. Chavez looked to be a promising addition to Tampa Bay's bullpen but wasn't expected to have the kind of impact Soriano will have.

The book on Soriano is last season was his first as a closer. Despite his solid numbers, the Braves didn't trust him completely, making him split opportunities with Mike Gonzalez. After tremendous first half of the season, he began to struggle in the second half, posting a 4.91 ERA, 0-5 record and three blown saves, perhaps the result of the workload the Braves put on him.

He has a blistering 100 mile an hour fastballl and works it with a nasty slider. One major concern is does have a history of arm problems. Still, he's only 30 and is definitely considered one of the best back end options out there.

Soriano wants to be a team's primary closer. He believes he is the man for the job and the Rays will give him that opportunity.

With this move, Tampa Bay has put a shot over the bow of the rest of the American League while showing their fans that 2010 is going to be about now. The talk of the future is over.

Get your popcorn ready, Rays fans!