Rafael Soriano, the best relief pitcher on the free-agent market this year, has reached a three-year deal with the New York Yankees worth about $35 million. The Yankees have opted for Soriano since their initial interest in Kerry Wood didn’t develop into a deal and they’re better off for it.
Wood’s injury history is well-documented and he struggled mightily in the AL. Despite posting an ERA of 0.69 in 26.0 short innings, Wood also walked 18 hitters and survived due to a strikeout rate reminiscent of his early days as a starter.
Rafael Soriano also has strikeout potential, and though his K’s took a hit last year in the AL East, he still set down 8.2 guys per nine innings. Soriano has not been entirely injury-free in his career, nor has he ever shown the promise that Kerry Wood did in his early days, but it’s hard not to imagine him as a more reliable late-inning arm for the Yankees over the next one-to-three seasons.
The nature of this deal is unusual for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the amount of money Soriano is getting is rather high, to say the least. Non-closer relievers with seven-figure salaries are really unheard of, and while I don’t deny that Soriano is the best relief pitcher to be a free-agent this year, his contract is a product of Scott Boras’ classic high selling and the Yankees’ bottomless wallet. The other strange thing is that Soriano can opt out of his deal after either of the first two seasons.
It’s hard to tell what he’s going to do, but since he was searching for a closers’ job (for four years, no less) he will probably jump ship if he thinks one such job is available. The reason he didn’t get such a deal was because the teams who didn’t already have a reliable ninth-inning guy balked at the asking price, and of the teams who could use a good set-up type (virtually every team), only the Yankees would be willing to dip into their funds to the tune of 10 million or more per year.
Because a number of teams are going to have expensive closers coming off the books after 2011, I wouldn’t be altogether surprised to see Soriano leave after one year in search of a closing job. The Mets, Tigers, and Reds head the list of teams who might be interested. These three teams have been known to spend money on closers. Francisco Rodriguez got 37 million from the Mets over three years and there is no way they pick up his $17.5 million option for 2012. With a lot of silly money coming off the board after 2011, to the tune of at least $48 million, they could offer Soriano a lucrative deal to close games. The Tigers could just resign Jose Valverde, but Soriano is perhaps a slightly better pitcher for an extra four or five million annually. I think the Reds would be willing to think long and hard about replacing Francisco Cordero with Soriano if the option presented itself.
The list of possibilities extends beyond those three teams. The Cardinals have a solid closer in Ryan Franklin—who has been good but probably should not be your team’s best reliever. They should aim to strengthen their bullpen if they have money left over after locking Albert Pujols up for another decade. I think the Phillies are unlikely to pick up their 12 and a half million option on Brad Lidge for 2012 and could just as well put that money toward a few years of Soriano. The Angels will probably aim to strengthen their bullpen and I doubt they think just resigning Fernando Rodney the solution to their late-inning issues. I expect Soriano to have a multitude of options if his 2011 season is productive enough for him to expect a high-paying ninth-inning job elsewhere.
It is not especially unlikely that he pitches well enough, especially considering his stellar 2010 season. Soriano has that great combination of strikeout ability and control, with career K/9 and BB/9 ratios of 9.62 and 2.69 respectively. The strikeouts dipped to 8.23 per nine innings last year, perhaps because the AL East is a tougher division than the NL East or AL West, but
The biggest gripe a Yankee fan should have with Soriano is his fly-ball rate. With only 0.62 grounders per fly and only one season with a ratio of 1.00 or higher, Soriano can be expected to give up a few home runs. He was lucky in 2010 with only 4.8% of fly balls leaving the park and cannot be expected to repeat that. To be fair, he got a rather high percentage of pop ups, as opposed to line drives, but these statistics are somewhat unpredictable.
With his lowered strikeout rate came a lower walk rate. Soriano’s 2.02 walks per nine innings was bested by only 10 relief pitchers with 50 or more innings in 2010. His 2.69 career mark is better than all but 32 relief pitchers with 300 or more innings pitched (as a reliever) over the past fifteen years. His batting average on balls in play was .212, an extremely low figure even for Soriano with his career mark of .256.
He has continuously seen success with his fastball (averaging 92.9 mph in 2010) and his slider. Both have been worth a positive runs above average total for six years running. Soriano started to throw a cutter about 15% of the time in 2010. That worked for him too and might be key to limiting damage from good lefty hitters. I think there may be someone in New York who can help him with the cutter if need be.
There are so many things to like about Soriano in the Yankees bullpen. The results he’s gotten and the stats that underlie these results, such as his above average first-pitch strike rate or his tendency to get guys to swing at pitches out of the zone and miss them, both at rates above MLB average in 2010. In 2010 he posted an FIP of 2.81. That’s probably what we can expect Soriano’s ERA to look like next year.
Another interesting benefit is that Soriano’s deal opens the door for the Yankees to give Joba Chamberlain another shot at the rotation. Joba performed better than people think last year, as his 4.40 ERA hid a FIP of 2.98. Joba’s strikeout rate was up to 9.67 per nine IP and he walked fewer than three per nine for the first time since 2007. His BABIP should be slightly lower and while we cannot expect his talents to perfectly translate from the bullpen to the rotation, he at least deserves another chance. That is, unless the Yankees are comfortable with Sergio Mitre as their fifth starter.
The Yankees needed another good righty for their bullpen. It was good that they made the move for Soriano. Even if they only have him for one year. Even if he doesn’t repeat his brilliance of 2010. The remaining right-handed free agent relievers are minor-league deals waiting to happen. There’s Blaine Boyer and Lance Cormier of the few-strikeouts/many-walks variety. There’s Manny Delcarmen and Juan Cruz of the plenty-of-strikeouts-but-way-too-many-walks variety. Then there are the likes of Kelvim Escobar, Chris Ray and Justin Ducherer who could be good if they weren’t so brittle. The best remaining options are probably Jon Rauch, Chad Durbin, and Chad Qualls, none of whom have the talent or the potential that Soriano has.
This signing was a good one. Soriano, far and away the best relief pitcher available, was worth seven figures annually in an oddly structured deal because it adds depth and talent to the bullpen, could push Joba into another chance at starting, and it gives Soriano a chance to win in 2011 and add to his already impressive resume in anticipation of an opportunity to close in 2012 or beyond. Both sides should be happy.