Rafael Soriano: The Last Man Standing

At this point, it only makes sense to talk about Rafael Soriano. That’s not something you hear every day, but it makes sense to talk about Rafael Soriano because these are the remaining names that currently populate our free agent depth charts:

We used to have something like 100 names on our free agent depth charts, and now we’re down to 11. More specifically, those 11. If you weren’t keeping track at home, that’s two catchers who combined for -1.3 WAR last year, a first baseman who’s retiring, a 37-year-old second baseman who’s played nine games since 2012, a group of three outfielders who are projected for a combined -0.6 WAR, another outfielder who’s out for the season, a reliever coming off three consecutive years of elbow surgeries, a pitcher who no longer amounts to much more than a beard, and a closer who’s saved 117 games the last three years.

That’s the long-winded way of saying, Rafael Soriano is the Last Man Standing in this year’s free agent class, and at this point, he sticks out like a sore thumb.

First, let’s look at the basics. The Nationals declined Soriano’s $14m club option on October 31, because the first two years of $14m were bad enough. It’s not that Soriano was bad, necessarily — 75 saved in two years with a 3.15 ERA and 3.38 FIP is respectable — but $14m/year is top-dollar money for a reliever, not “respectable” money. Most of us thought the Nationals made an overpay for the “proven closer” label when that deal was signed, and, in this case, both hindsight and foresight were 20/20.

This October, you guys pegged him as the No. 30 free agent, and predicted he’d receive two years and $14m in free agency. With each day he sits on the open market, it becomes less and less likely he’ll reach that figure.

So, why? Why is Soriano still out there? First thing that might come to your mind is age. Soriano is in his age-35 season, and that’s old for any player. At the same time, effectiveness always trumps age, and we’re in an offseason where Jim Johnson received a major league contract right off the bat, so go figure.

Then you look to Soriano’s most recent season — specifically, the most recent parts of his most recent season — and the picture becomes a bit clearer. This is the last pitch Soriano threw in a save situation, on September 5:

revere1

Even if you already know what’s happening in that .gif, you might still be having trouble wrapping your head around it. Read this next sentence slowly: Rafael Soriano allowed a home run, to Ben Revere, with two strikes, and two outs, in the ninth inning, to tie the game. I’m gonna toss numbers out the window for a quick second and just go ahead and declare that the worst outcome for any pitcher last year. I can’t fathom how it can get much worse. In 2,026 career chances, Revere has hit two home runs, and the other one got a whole post written about it.

After the game, Nationals manager Matt Williams said the following, with regards to Soriano’s role as the team’s closer:

“We’ll address it,” Williams said. “I’m not going to let you guys know exactly what is going to happen right now. But we have guys that have done it, so we have multiple options, I can give you that.”

The next day, Drew Storen was the closer.

And, really, the move was probably long overdue. Soriano hadn’t been good in a while, and Storen (and Tyler Clippard) had arguably been better throughout Soriano’s entire tenure in Washington. Soriano had had a rough second half. Prior to the All-Star Break, he had a 0.97 ERA. Starting in July, his ERA through the end of the year was 6.48. Another way to process that:

Rafael Soriano, 2014 wOBA allowed, by month

  • Mar/Apr: .224
  • May: .222
  • Jun: .196
  • July: .377
  • Aug: .313
  • Sept/Oct: .376

Soriano had been struggling for a while. The Revere dinger was just the last straw. But, even after the Revere dinger, Williams still had this to say, from that same interview:

“…it’s odd, but I don’t see anything that’s consistent with [Soriano’s] lack of success,” Williams said. “His velocity is as good as it has been all year. Balls are up in the zone a little bit, I think, but it’s hard to hit homers.”

The results hadn’t been there, and so Williams had to make a change. That’s what managers do. But when Williams really looked into things, he didn’t see much of a difference. It’d be easy to cast that aside as manager-speak, trying to protect his own player, but when I looked into things, I saw the same. The velocity is lower than it was a couple years ago, but not much different than it was in 2013 or those early months of 2014 when Soriano was so good. The pitch mix wasn’t much different. The pitch location wasn’t very different — he was up in the zone, but he’s always been up in the zone. His release points remained consistent. The whiffs were still there, and the walks actually went down. Most of Soriano’s struggles, seemingly, can be chalked to quality of contact:

  • First half: 15% LD, 11% IFFB, .207 BABIP
  • Second half: 24% LD, 2% IFFB, .358 BABIP

Soriano essentially traded his pop-ups for line drives, and got hammered on balls in play as a result. Of course, that first sample is 37 innings and the second one is 25 innings, and lots of weird things can happen when you’re dealing with a few dozens of innings. At the same time, the worry among scouts is that Soriano lost something in that second half, and we know that the older a pitcher gets, the harder it becomes for him to gain something back once he’s lost it. At 35 years old, Soriano doesn’t have much left in the way of wiggle room.

Best we can figure is that Soriano is something like his final year-end line, which isn’t much different than his previous couple year-end lines. Soriano is a solid — but not great — reliever, who probably hasn’t been dominant enough for you to want him to be your team’s closer for several years now. Despite his age, he’s been remarkably durable in the recent and also not-so-recent past, though a history of early-career elbow troubles muddy the waters a bit.

So, where does Soriano end up? He’s going to end up somewhere. He’s still a quality major league pitcher, and Scott Boras is still his agent. He’s going to get a deal, it’s going to be a major league deal, he might even get two years, though it seems pretty likely he’s down to just one at this point.

The most obvious destination is in Toronto. Back in Feburary, GM Alex Anthopolous publicly stated the team had been in contact with Soriano, and that was before they lost Marcus Stroman for the year, freeing up a spot on their Opening Day pitching staff. Brett Cecil has been pretty fantastic for the Blue Jays in relief the last two seasons, but he’s only saved six games, and so it’s certainly easy to see Soriano ending up in the 9th inning there if the Blue Jays value the “proven closer” label.

The Brewers seemed to be suitors, but they filled their bullpen void by re-signing Francisco Rodriguez. Buster Olney thinks that leaves the Marlins as the most logical landing spot. With Steve Cishek as the incumbent, Soriano certainly wouldn’t step in as the closer, but he could help replace some of the relief depth the team traded away this offseason in Dan Jennings and Chris Hatcher. You can never rule the Dodgers out of any free agent, and recent injuries to both Kenley Jansen and Brandon League seem to make them a logical fit. Of course, these aren’t the only teams that make sense for Soriano, and this late in the game, it’s anyone’s guess as to who swoops in to grab him.

Rafael Soriano is the Last Man Standing, and, given his age and second half performance, it’s not hard to see why. At the same time, he’s proven to be a solid late-inning relief option, and those don’t grow on trees. If it’s “closer experience” you value, it’s closer experience you’ve got. When you look at the peripherals, Soriano didn’t seem to be any different of a pitcher in his disastrous second half than his lights-out first half, though scouts still worry he lost something. When you’re dealing with the Last Man Standing, there’s always going to be cons to match the pros, but the pros are still there, and Soriano shouldn’t be left standing too much longer.

We hoped you liked reading Rafael Soriano: The Last Man Standing by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Edward Sutelan
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Edward Sutelan

Why the Tigers have yet to sign him is a mystery to me. As bad as their bullpen has been and with the serious need for a closer (right being Nathan, Soria, or Chamberlain) that they have, a deal for Soriano makes a lot of sense. Could be a risk but at this point Dombrowski should try to do anything to fix that one glaring hole.

Walk Off Walk
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Walk Off Walk

Thought the same thing right when it got to the section of who can sign him. If he’s solid but not great that’s still an improvement for what the Tigers currently have, and if he is over the hill, well, he can join Nathan in the valley at the other side.