Rafael Soriano to the Nationals—Conspiracy Theories and Truth

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Rafael Soriano has agreed to a 2-year, $28 million contract with the Washington Nationals. There is significant deferred money and a third year option that automatically kicks in based on games finished in 2013-2014. You can read about the details here.

Let’s look at the ramifications, theories and reality of the Soriano signing.

Did Scott Boras hoodwink the Nats again?

Boras represents both Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper—both of whose contracts will eventually be an issue for the Nationals—along with Jayson Werth, Danny Espinosa and Anthony Rendon. Accompanying that, there’s the concept that he’s using the same Svengali-like sway he has on his clients to hypnotize Nationals’ owner Ted Lerner into overpaying for a player he doesn’t need.

Boras’s ability to convince Lerner that this (Werth, Soriano, the Strasburg shutdown) is what the club needs to be successful certainly helped, but Boras is a businessman whose clients are his main motivating factor and if the Dodgers, Yankees or whomever had presented a better deal for Soriano, he would have taken it. Boras didn’t make any promises to package his players and make Harper, Strasburg or anyone else more signable for the Nats because, apart from probably being both illegal and against MLB rules, he’s not going to cost one player to serve another one. Sure, he’ll plan and steer clients to certain destinations that will pay that player the most money and simultaneously open up a spot in the prior location for another client, but that’s different from overtly saying, “Sign Soriano and I’ll make it worth your while with Strasburg and Harper later.”

It didn’t happen.

For Rafael Soriano

Boras’s intent was to get Soriano a 4-year, $60 million deal. If Soriano reaches his incentives for games finished (and barring injury or poor performance, he will), the deal will be $42 million for three years. That’s not $60 million over four, but given the market and the draft pick compensation that was attached to Soriano serving to scare away suitors who were unable or unwilling to swing the dowry, it’s a great deal for the pitcher.

The planets aligned perfectly for Soriano in 2012. He was an afterthought as the seventh inning man for the Yankees but the following happened:

  • Mariano Rivera’s knee injury
  • David Robertson’s brief foray as the Yankees’ closer left him with a look on his face like a victim of the creepy kid from The Ring
  • Soriano took over as Yankees’ closer and pitched brilliantly
  • He had the opt out in his contract

All of these factors secured more money and a guaranteed closer’s role for Soriano and it’s with a team on the short list to win the World Series—something that as of now cannot be said about the Yankees. Had he returned to the Yankees, his role would have been either the eighth or back to the seventh inning. His numbers and financial opportunities would’ve suffered for it in his next chance at free agency and his age would affect his marketability as well.

He had his chance to get paid and, wisely, he took it.

For the Nationals

Is Soriano something of an overkill? Yes, if—and it’s a big if—Drew Storen’s elbow is healthy and, more importantly, his head isn’t still muddled by his disastrous game 5 meltdown in the NLDS loss to the Cardinals in which he blew a 2-run lead with two outs in the ninth inning. He wound up surrendering 4 runs as the Cardinals won the game and the series.

Presumably, his elbow isn’t the problem. His head might be.

Nationals’ manager Davey Johnson saw firsthand what can happen to a pitcher who blows a game like that when he was managing the Mets and they rallied against Red Sox closer Calvin Schiraldi in 1986 in both games 6 and 7 of the World Series and Schiraldi’s career as a significant contributor was essentially done after that. Johnson likes to have a deep bullpen, but he also likes to have a closer he knows isn’t going to panic in a big game. He had that with the Mets and Roger McDowell, Jesse Orosco and Randy Myers; he had it with the Reds with Jeff Brantley; and with the Orioles with Myers again. There might have been that underlying fear with Storen that he wouldn’t recover.

Soriano’s not exactly trustworthy in the playoffs either, but he did replace Rivera and do the job in New York, doubly-massive pressure situations.

The argument could be made that the Nationals, if they no longer trusted Storen, could simply have switched roles between him and Tyler Clippard permanently. Clippard closed in Storen’s absence and even after Storen returned last season, so he can do it. But when Rivera got hurt and the Yankees stuck Robertson in the closer’s role adhering to a misplaced rule of succession, it was a mistake. Robertson, like Clippard, did the heavy lifting in the seventh and eighth innings as the set-up man. It won’t be a glorious role until there’s a catchier and more definable stat than a “hold,” and until these pitchers are paid commensurately for the job they’re doing, but it’s sometimes more important to have a good set-up man than the closer, whose job is to accumulate saves and whose main attribute is to handle the job mentally. Clippard can close, but he’s more valuable setting up.

Historically, Johnson has also liked using more than one closer, so it’s possible Storen might get a few save opportunities. With Soriano’s mentality, though, that too would be a mistake. As the “established closer paid to get the saves,” Soriano doesn’t want to hear statistical reasons as to why he’s not pitching the ninth inning in a save situation. He wants the ball and he wants the saves. If anyone else is used in the ninth inning when Soriano is healthy, feeling good and available, he’ll see that as a threat, making it a potential long-term issue.

Johnson will use Soriano to close. Period. It’s not because he doesn’t want to think for himself or do something against new conventional orthodoxy, but because it’s easier for him and the team to do it that way.

The draft pick and the money

According to Forbes, as of September 2012, Ted Lerner was worth $3.9 billion. He’s 87-years-old. Could the player the Nationals would draft at 31 in the 1st round make a difference to them in Lerner’s lifetime? Possibly. Is it likely that the player will be more useful than Soriano? No.

Maybe they’re going to package Storen with Mike Morse in a trade to get another starting pitcher and a lefty specialist; maybe they’ll use them to bolster the farm system with better prospects than they would have gotten in the 2013 first round. If that’s the case, then they’ve benefited themselves in multiple ways.

The Nationals aren’t building. They’re built. Any player they drafted at number 31 isn’t going to be a significant contributor to this current group unless they draft what they just signed—a short reliever. And the likelihood of a college draftee closer showing up and taking over as the Nationals’ closer and anchoring a championship team in 2013-2014 is almost non-existent. The number of college closers that have been drafted as closers and made it to the big leagues quickly to contribute significantly starts with Gregg Olson and ends with Chad Cordero. It’s more probable that they’d end up with a Jaime Bluma—a great closing arm that never made it.

They have the money and the draft pick was negligible. They’re a better team today with Soriano than they were yesterday without him and the 31st pick in the draft. The Nationals are trying to win right now and, considering what was available, Soriano helps them to do that better than the other options. There were no conspiracies nor was it buying for its own sake. They wanted to improve immediately and that’s what they did.

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Reds, Indians and Diamondbacks 3-Way Trade Hinges on Bauer and Gregorius

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The Reds, Indians and Diamondbacks completed a three team trade that broke down in the following way:

Let’s look at this from the perspectives of all three.

For the Reds:

The 29-year-old Choo was back to his normal self in 2012 after a terrible 2011 season that included an injury to his oblique and a DUI arrest. He hits for power, steals bases with a high rate of success, walks, and hits for average. He does strike out a lot, his defense is statistically on the decline, and he’s a free agent at the end of the 2012 season. The Reds have said they’re going to play him in center field but it’s a ridiculous idea. Reds’ right fielder Jay Bruce has experience in center and Choo has played 10 career games at the position in the majors.

Choo is going to want a lot of money on the market next winter, will be in demand and is represented by Scott Boras. The Reds aren’t expecting him to sign a long-term extension, so he’s a one-year rental and a good one. He makes the team better offensively than they were with the free-swinging strikeout machine Stubbs, and as long as Bruce can play an adequate center, the defensive downgrade is negligible—Stubbs wasn’t exactly Paul Blair out there.

Donald is a versatile backup infielder replacing former utilityman Todd Frazier who will take over as the everyday third baseman.

Gregorius was blocked by Zack Cozart at shortstop and the Reds did very well considering they only gave up Stubbs and a minor league shortstop they really didn’t need.

For the Indians:

For better or worse, new Indians manager Terry Francona is having his voice heard by the front office and they’re looking toward the long-term by acquiring a potential frontline starter in Bauer. Albers is known to Francona from their days with the Red Sox. Also known by Francona is Anderson, for whom he had no use with the Red Sox and couldn’t wait to be rid of from the Indians.

Stubbs is a decent journeyman outfielder with pop. He’s going to strike out over 200 times a year and combining him with Mark Reynolds in the Indians lineup will create enough wind power to benefit both the Indians and the Reds by reducing energy costs for the entire state if they choose to use their baseball detriments for a statewide positive.

For the Diamondbacks:

Apparently Bauer’s “attitude” issues were a problem in spite of the Diamondbacks repeatedly saying they weren’t. If a rookie is arriving in the big leagues with a unique motion, a big mouth and he won’t listen to anyone, there’s going to be tension especially when the manager is an old-school type in Kirk Gibson and the pitching coach is a former big league All-Star in Charles Nagy. Teams love a youngster with attitude and feistiness until they need to bridle him and that attitude and feistiness circles back on them and he’s ignoring them. That appears to be what happened with Bauer. In general, very few players—especially high draft choices in whom clubs have invested a lot of money—aren’t going to change until they decide to do so or if they repeatedly fail at the big league level and find themselves trapped in the minors. With Bauer, the “this or that” was about three years away, if it happened at all, so they cut their losses.

There are a couple of ways to look at this: first you can credit the Diamondbacks for accepting that the player they selected 3rd overall in 2011 isn’t a fit for their organization and they moved him before concerns turned into a full-blown disaster. Or they can be criticized because they drafted him and should’ve known all of these things beforehand, calculating the negatives with the positives and perhaps shying away from him for another player.

That they got Gregorius as the centerpiece with the useful lefty reliever Sipp (he can get out both lefties and righties), and Anderson is a very limited return on a former top three pick who, to our knowledge, isn’t hurt.

No one should be surprised considering the warning flags on Bauer. I wrote about it before he was drafted here when he was absurdly compared to Tim Lincecum, and it was discussed in this Yahoo piece. Those same warning flags were basically screaming to stay away from him. I wouldn’t have touched Bauer, but the Diamondbacks drafted him based on talent and it took a year-and-a-half for them to see that that iconoclasm was either not going to change or the package they unwrapped wasn’t worth the time and aggravation it was going to cost to get him to change.

The Indians are banking on that talent, got him for relatively little, and didn’t have to pay the $3.4 million signing bonus Bauer received from the Diamondbacks. Perhaps Francona can get through to him or they’ll just let him be in a way the Diamondbacks wouldn’t. Francona’s far more laid back than the hair-trigger Gibson.

He’s an iffy prospect at this point and it’s clear GM Kevin Towers‘s decision to trade him is an admission that they shouldn’t have drafted him in the first place; they realized that and dumped him before it truly spiraled. What makes the decision to select Bauer even worse is that Towers is often lauded for his player-like sensibilities. He’s not a highly educated outsider who decided to enter a baseball front office. He played in the minors and knows players and the clubhouse dynamic, yet still chose to draft Bauer and look past the obvious.

Towers is a mediocre GM. The Bauer drafting and subsequent trade is a blot on his resume right up there with his ridiculous waiver claim on Randy Myers in 1998 while GM of the Padres—a decision that almost got him fired. With the Diamondbacks, he benefited greatly from a lot of luck and pieces that were in place prior to his hiring and the club won the NL West in 2011 before falling back closer in line to their talent level with a .500 finish in 2012.

Towers compared Gregorius to a “young Derek Jeter.” Having watched video clips of him, Gregorius looks more like a lefty swinging Hanley Ramirez. At first glance (there’s a video clip below), he’s impressive and fills a need at shortstop for the club. If he evolves into that (sans the Ramirez-style attitude that got Bauer shipped out), then it will be a great deal for the Diamondbacks. If not, it was costly on a multitude of levels for Towers, whose rose, as expected, is losing its bloom in the Arizona desert.

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The Cliff Lee Waiver Claim FREAKOUT!!!!!!

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The truth about MLB waiver claims is always presented at the bottom of a splashy and intentionally overblown headline and equally worse article like it’s the Terms and Conditions when signing up for a credit card, website or service. The devil is in the details but that devil isn’t a concern until after the fact. I may be overestimating those who are writing the pieces implying that Cliff Lee might somehow wind up with the Dodgers following their waiver claim—some suggesting that the Phillies let him go for nothing—by thinking that they’re simply following the edicts of editors who want them to write stories that are designed for webhits and to spur conversation rather than disseminate accurate information, but overestimating those who don’t know much of anything to begin with tends to be a mistake.

Here are the MLB waiver rules posted on the B-R Bullpen.

Since the Dodgers’ waiver claim on Lee is being misinterpreted as Lee going to the Dodgers and spurring the concept that the Phillies are going to trade Lee, I’m wondering what’s going to happen when Robinson Cano, Mike Trout, Felix Hernandez, David Wright, Justin Verlander and any other star you could name is placed on waivers. Is it going to be a frenzy of ridiculous writing that a trade or the decision to let them go is imminent?

No.

The waiver rules can lead to drastic mistakes made by GMs. In 1998, then Padres’ GM Kevin Towers claimed Randy Myers of the Blue Jays because he was worried about Myers winding up with the Braves. The Blue Jays let the Padres have Myers and stuck them the remaining money on his contract for 1999-2000 plus whatever he was owed for 1998. It presumably came to over $14 million. Towers almost lost his job over it and, to make matters worse, the insurance company refused to pay the Padres’ claim in spite of Myers’s inability to pitch. The case was settled out of court.

Oh, and the Braves had no interest in Myers anyway.

Another case in which the GM made a mistake was in 1990 when Pirates’ GM Larry Doughty placed minor leaguers (and then top prospects) Wes Chamberlain and Julio Peguero on waivers and, without realizing he couldn’t pull them back, was forced to trade them for Carmelo Martinez. This wasn’t as egregious an error as the one made by Towers. The waiver rules had been changed earlier that season and Doughty was a baseball guy, not a legal expert; the Pirates didn’t have an in-house legal mind to navigate the rules because they wanted to save a few bucks. In retrospect, neither of the Pirates’ “top minor league prospects” Chamberlain and Peguero did anything in the big leagues to make it a regrettable deal, but since they were well-regarded at the time, the Pirates could’ve gotten more for them them the fading veteran Martinez.

This reaction to the Lee waiver claim is a non-story. Phillies’ GM Ruben Amaro Jr. placed Lee on waivers and because he was willing to listen to offers for the much-traveled lefty and there’s speculation that he’s going to be dealt, but they’re not giving him away and if the Dodgers want him, they’ll have to give up several prospects to do it. In theory, the Phillies could let Lee go and use the available money to sign a replacement arm for next season such as Zack Greinke or try to trade for Hernandez or some other big name, but Amaro said they’re not letting Lee go, so the point is moot. And even if it happens, it will be as much of a shock to those who are playing up Lee being placed on waivers as a big news story. The stoking of this fire is worse because that fire is being fanned in a crowded theater with people who don’t know any better as the inhabitants.

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Soriano Should Replace Rivera

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Mariano Rivera was likely lost to the Yankees for the season after tearing his knee—NY Times Story.

A decision will have to be made as to whom is going to record the saves for the Yankees.

All things considered, the best bet to take over in the ninth inning is Rafael Soriano.

As great as Rivera has been, his reputation has been built in the post-season and not in the regular season. Any team can find someone to accumulate the negligible save stat. In certain cases, there have been pitchers—Brad Lidge in 2008 with the Phillies—who were the difference for their team making the playoffs or not because of one brilliant year. During the Yankees’ run with Rivera as their closer, they were so deep and talented that if they didn’t have Rivera, they still would’ve been in the playoffs. What they would’ve done when there is in serious debate and it’s unlikely they would’ve won 5 titles without Rivera—he was the main difference between the Yankees and their World Series opponents during that time.

But this is a situation in which the misinterpreted WAR is a useful stat.

It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that Rivera’s highest WAR was in 1996 at 5.4. That was his one full season in the big leagues when he wasn’t the closer. Setting up for John Wetteland, it was Rivera who did the old-school, heavy lifting the type which the naysayers of the new era of save-collectors have ridiculed as being totally different from what they used to do.

Goose Gossage has been the most vocal in this vein.

And he’s been right.

Without Rivera in 1996, the Yankees weren’t making the playoffs. Much like the Rivera knee injury that may have ended his career, it was an accident of circumstance that led to Rivera’s rise from failed starter to Hall of Fame reliever under Joe Torre. Torre discovered a formula that had been partially used by the 1990 Reds with The Nasty Boys Randy Myers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton. The Reds’ mediocre starters were asked to get them to the sixth or seventh inning with a lead and the game was handed over to the superlative bullpen.

The 1990 Reds went wire-to-wire and swept the heavily-favored Athletics in the World Series.

The Yankees maintained that template after Wetteland was allowed to leave as a free agent following the 1996 season and brought in several set-up men to do the work Rivera did by himself.

Now, with Rivera gone, the conventional wisdom suggests that the Yankees will simply elevate David Robertson to the closer’s role and everyone else—Soriano, possibly Phil Hughes—will be used in the seventh and eighth innings.

But that’s a mistake.

It’s Robertson who’s doing the heavy lifting now. Rivera was a devastating weapon in the ninth inning, but Robertson might have become more valuable with his ridiculous strikeout numbers (12.2 per 9 innings) and an ability to magically get out of trouble that’s resulted in him being nicknamed “Houdini”.

For him to enter in the ninth inning as if by rote would render his skills relatively useless.

I suppose they could leave the current configuration as is and do something outside-the-box (that would probably work) and use Hughes as the closer, but the Yankees have shown no evidence of going so completely against the grain and their own misguided organizational rules and regulations for their pitchers to think that they’d do that.

Soriano has successfully closed before and has never gotten comfortable with pitching in the earlier innings. Perhaps giving him the ninth inning will revert him back to what he was with the Rays in 2010 when he saved 45 games, made the All-Star team and was eighth in the Cy Young Award voting.

Soriano can’t handle post-season pressure and has been disturbingly susceptible to the home run ball. That would lean me in the direction of Hughes as the closer. Either way, the heavy lifting should be left to Robertson without the onus of the save stat hanging over their heads and dictating strategy in lieu of doing what’s right to win the game in the now.

Worrying about what happens in the post-season isn’t as great a concern as getting there. Without Rivera, the stiffer competition in the American League and the resulting shifting of the pieces due to his loss, a playoff berth is no longer a guarantee for the Yankees.

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