Boras Finds Rafael Soriano a Home in D.C.

Coming into the offseason, Rafael Soriano had a choice: return to the Yankees in 2013 for $14 million, or opt out, collect $1.5 million, and become a free agent. Consensus around these parts was that Soriano should stay put. Soriano opted out. The Yankees extended to Soriano a $13.3 million qualifying offer, and there was a strong argument that Soriano should accept it and stay with New York. Soriano turned it down and entered the market with compensation reducing his appeal. Many of those players who declined qualifying offers have struggled to find the contracts they wanted. For a while, Soriano’s market, at least publicly, wasn’t developing. It was unclear for a while what was going to happen to Rafael Soriano, and it was easy to conclude that he’d made the wrong decisions.

Soriano just signed a two-year contract with the Nationals worth $28 million. He turned down $14 million over one year, a year in which he wouldn’t close much, and ended up with $14 million over two years, years in which he’ll at least initially be the closer. There’s also a $14 million vesting option at the end, just in case the contract wasn’t good enough for Soriano already. Soriano, and his agent Scott Boras.

Over the offseason, I’ve been trading texts with someone who had a vested interest in where Soriano would ultimately end up. The texts were usually more question than answer, as we couldn’t identify a probable front-runner for his services. Detroit seemed obvious, but Detroit denied interest. Toronto seemed like a possible dark horse. We never identified Washington, although in hindsight, maybe we should’ve. With Scott Boras, it’s not so much about need; it’s about Boras’ ability to convince an organization of its need. It’s evident that Boras and the Nationals have a good relationship, and this is just the latest chapter.

The lesson here isn’t to never doubt Scott Boras. Boras is a fantastic agent, but he isn’t a perfect agent, and he won’t always get his clients what they’re looking for. We’ll see what he does with Kyle Lohse, and we’ll see what he does with Michael Bourn. Those guys might still have to settle. But we figured Soriano would have to settle until he didn’t, and this is Boras’ genius. He’s powerful and he’s persuasive, and he can make something out of very very little. With different representation, Soriano might today be in a very different situation.

If the ends justify the means, Soriano was right to opt out and decline the qualifying offer. He got his multi-year contract. But this isn’t the only justification; this way, Soriano got to enter the market having just been a closer, whereas a year from now he presumably would have given way to Mariano Rivera. That would’ve reduced his value, even though he’s demonstrated that he’s able to close at multiple points in his career. It wasn’t completely irrational. Clearly.

Now, Soriano is a reliever. We can probably agree that he’s a non-elite reliever, and he’s 33 years old with an injury history. Let’s ignore the vesting option; that kicks in if Soriano finishes 120 games between 2013-2014, and Soriano’s never finished 60 games in a season once, let alone twice, let alone consecutively. That’s probably not much of a factor. Still, I think we have to conclude that Soriano probably won’t be worth this contract. No matter how you figure reliever valuation, Soriano’s getting $14 million a year for two years. He’d have to be incredible to be worth that, and then there’s also the matter of the lost draft pick.

But if you begin with the premise that $28 million for two years for Rafael Soriano is maybe a little too risky, you can figure out for whom it’s the least too risky. For which team would that contract make the most sense? And I think the Nationals are the answer. If someone had to gamble on Soriano as a free agent, the Nationals make a whole lot of sense.

Nevermind that the Nationals already had a closer, if not a couple of them. Relievers can occupy different roles, and all of them are important. The Nationals, last year, finished with the best record in baseball, so the pick they’re surrendering is the pick at the end of the first round. As first-round picks are concerned, theirs is the least valuable. There are teams out there with protected high first-round picks, but those teams aren’t really in the market for an aging closer.

Then there’s the matter of the Nationals arguably being the best team in baseball right now. It’s close, and there’s a lot of error-bar overlap, but the Nationals are among baseball’s top World Series contenders in 2013 and, presumably, 2014. They have the most to gain from roster improvements, and Soriano makes them better today. It’s clear now they had money to spend, and looking at their roster, it’s not like there are a lot of areas for improvement. They’re solid all the way around, and they could’ve used a bullpen boost and a rotation depth boost. Soriano is their bullpen boost. The Nationals’ bullpen now has more overall ability, and a greater ability to withstand injury or under-performance. The Nationals signed Soriano with both the regular season and the playoffs in mind.

This also has the side benefit of giving the Nationals a little more flexibility in Michael Morse trade negotiations. There’s less reason for them to target a late-inning reliever, and they’re now more able to consider moving Morse for a prospect or two. Or a fifth or sixth starter. Soriano doesn’t change everything about the Morse talks, but it’s a factor.

Drew Storen is a good reliever, nevermind his postseason meltdown. Tyler Clippard is a good reliever, too, and so is Craig Stammen. Soriano is another good reliever. He struck out a quarter of the batters he faced in 2012, and he’s coming from a small park in the American League. He could get hurt or he could underperform, but he does make the Nationals a better team, and doing that was a challenge given the way the Nationals’ roster already looked. And those other good relievers will still throw their higher-leverage innings. There’s room for Soriano, basically.

Mathematically, this is probably an overpay. The Nationals are in a situation where they don’t have to worry too terribly much about a slight overpayment. They’re fantastic, and a World Series championship justifies an awful lot. They’re in a better spot now.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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EricL
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EricL

Don’t decent-but-not-great teams have the most to benefit from roster improvements, as each marginal win for them is more valuable? The 88th-91st wins are, I think, more important to a team than the 93rd+ wins are. If that’s the case it would seem the Nationals, or any elite team, shouldn’t be overspending when they’re already dominant.

David
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David

“The most to gain” and “Some gain” are not the same thing. From an economic standpoint … call it payroll, or marginal wins, or whatever … Soriano is an overpay. Barring a major injury or meltdown in the Nats bullpen at least. But it’s still SOME gain, even if that gain is only insurance. If you are the Pirates you have to chase the most gain because you don’t have many dollars to use. When you’re the Nats, your payroll ceiling is more or less up to your owner. Overpays are fine so long as you’re not chasing ROI

Well-Beered Englishman
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Well-Beered Englishman

This signing is an investment of $28 million on 25ish innings of postseason work over the next two years. And if Soriano gives them 25 good innings in the 2013-14 playoffs, the overpay is justified.

I know this signing was not the rational product of Drew Storen’s meltdown, but that shadow still hangs over the team.

EricL
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EricL

Well, sure David, but take a look at paragraph 9 (4th from bottom), sentence 3.

Jaker
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Jaker

Some faulty logic there as you’re dealing in absolutes and assuming that the Nationals are somehow a lock to win 93+ games. No team is a lock to win that many games. Injury, under-performance and luck all factor into the equation. Adding Soriano could very well be what gives the Nats their 91st win.

EricL
Guest
EricL

No, I’m disputing a specific premise from the article.

Specifically this part:

“Then there’s the matter of the Nationals arguably being the best team in baseball right now. It’s close, and there’s a lot of error-bar overlap, but the Nationals are among baseball’s top World Series contenders in 2013 and, presumably, 2014. They have the most to gain from roster improvements…

The notion that the best teams in baseball are the ones that have the most to gain from roster improvements (and are therefore the best candidates to “overpay” for them) seems wrong. The teams that should be willing to do such an overpay are the marginal playoff contenders, as each additional win is worth more to their franchise than each additional win is to elite teams.

This isn’t 2013 Nationals specific.

munchtime
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munchtime

Eric, you confused the best ROI with the most to gain. Those upper 80s wins are the best ROI because that is where the biggest impact is on playoff hopes. Washington has higher goals than that, where ROI is a secondary concern. If Soriano is the difference between winning and losing the World Series, the dollar value of his contract is irrelevant.

Jim
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Jim

You’re only thinking of wins in terms of regular season, and making the playoffs. For the best teams, the playoffs are a given — what really matters is how well you do once you get there. Under those circumstances, a closer is just about the most valuable player there is.

Tomcat
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Tomcat

The surplus value of Strasburg, Harper, Zimmerman, Span, Gio, Ramos, Desmond and Espinosa means that the likely overpays of Werth, Laroche, Haren and Soriano is fine in that their existence on the payroll is not costing the Nats a chance at acquiring a better player for the money.

LK
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LK

I’ve heard people make the argument that relief pitchers are fungible during the year but can be extremely valuable in the playoffs. If you buy into that, then an elite reliever is probably most valuable to the team that is most likely to make the playoffs, which is probably the Nationals.

Careless
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Careless

If you assume a team is going to make the playoffs, the top end of its talent is significantly more valuable, because that’s going to be what’s used to go for a WS

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