Despite Stuart Sternberg’s assertion that “The bank is full…There is no $7 million closer showing up,” a $7 million closer just showed up. The Rays traded Jesse Chavez (received last month for Aki Iwamura) to the Braves for Rafael Soriano. In order to complete the deal, the Rays and Soriano agreed on a one-year deal for about $7 million.
Now that we have had a night to sleep and ponder, let’s take a look at what we like about the deal and why fans should still be worried…
What to like about the deal…
SORIANO SHOULD BE BETTER THAN HOWELL: In 2008, JP Howell was one of the top 10 relief pitchers in the AL. In 2009, he was one of the worst closers in the AL. Did he just have a bad season? Or is Howell not cut out to be a closer? Even in his great 2008 season, Howell was only worth 1.5 WAR. A healthy Soriano should be worth at least 2.0 WAR and could be worth 2.5-3.0.
THE RAYS GOT THEIR CLOSER: There has long been this myth that the Rays are a team that does not believe in having a designated closer. That simply is not true. Andrew Friedman and Co. have always said they would love to have a closer, they just couldn’t afford the going rate and felt the money could be better spent elsewhere. Theo Epstein did not win a World Series in Boston until he scrapped his closer-by-committee and signed free agent Keith Foulke. And now Friedman has finally decided that if the Rays are going to take that next step, they needed to spend a little more on somebody that records the three most important outs of a game.
RAYS KEEP THEIR DRAFT PICKS: The Rays signed the second best relief pitcher available and it did not cost them their first-round pick next June. Soriano was a free agent, but accepted arbitration from the Braves because his status as a Type A free agent would have cost his new team a first-round or second-round pick and may have limited how much other teams were willing to offer. By accepting arbitration, Soriano got a raise and the Rays got to keep their top pick.
SORIANO MAKES THE ENTIRE BULLPEN BETTER: If the Rays wanted to make an upgrade at shortstop, they would have to weigh the cost of a new shortstop against the net gain in talent between Jason Bartlett and the new shortstop. But in the bullpen it is different. While Soriano will take Howell’s role, he is not taking his job. Soriano should be a more effective closer than Howell, but the net gain in talent is from whoever would have been the 7th reliever (Jesse Chavez?) and Soriano. And that difference is huge. With Soriano on board, the rest of the bullpen moves down a slot and raises the talent level of each position.
THE RAYS ARE WILLING TO SPEND: Every indication the Rays had given in the past 6 months was that the 2010 payroll was not likely to rise over the 2009 opening day payroll of $63 million. And with so many arbitration cases and players expecting big raises, that meant the Rays were more likely to trim contracts than to add to the payroll. But the addition of Soriano brings the projected payroll close to $70 million and suggests a commitment to winning this season.
Why we should be worried about this deal…
SORIANO HAS A FRAGILE ARM: Tommy John surgery cost him most of the 2004 and 2005 seasons. A shoulder injury landed him on the DL in 2006. And an elbow injury had him on the DL three times in 2008 and cost him most of the season. The good news is that he was healthy in 2009. Then again, he has never had consecutive healthy seasons.
RAYS WILL STILL TRY TO TRIM PAYROLL: The Rays spent $63 million on payroll last season and claimed to have borrowed from future payrolls to do so. With attendance below expectations in 2009, $7 million is lot for the Rays to spend on a relief pitcher. Are the Rays willing to go to $70 million, or does somebody else need to be traded? We like Soriano as closer, but we like it a lot less if it means the Rays have to trade Carl Crawford or Carlos Pena to make room in the budget.
The Rayshead Army has every right to be excited about this move as the Rays are a better team today than they were before the Winter Meetings started. But we need to keep in mind that Soriano is no guarantee and the off-season is still very young.