Royals closer Joakim Soria left a spring training game on Sunday with a sore right elbow, a frustrating development for a player looking to rebound from a sub-par 2012. As of this writing, there is no word on whether the issue will cause Soria to miss any time to start the season. If Soria does miss time, it may not have that much of an impact on Kansas City because the team has a deep bullpen. However, this raises a further question regarding whether Soria should have been traded a year or two ago to maximize the return.
Soria struggled with control in the first part of the 2011 season. Jeff Zimmerman has suggested that this may have been due to an unsuccessful attempt to incorporate more cutters into his repertoire. In the later part of the season, Soria decreased his cutter usage and had more success. So he is likely still an excellent closer in the vein of his pre-2011 self (if not quite that good).
Still, even if the Royals were serious contenders in 2012, Soria missing a great deal of time would not be a huge loss for a team with a pretty stacked bullpen. Traditional baseball thinking would put Jonathan Broxton next in line for saves because he of his experience as a closer, his 2012 salary and his sideburns. If his elbow holds up, he can still be a very good reliever even if he does not reach the heights of 2009 and the first half of 2010.
Another potential closer fill-in is All-Star Aaron Crow, who may or may not make the rotation. You aren’t going to believe this, but being in the major-league bullpen last season – rather than starting in the minors – did not improve his third pitch! The Royals made much of Crow getting a shot at starting in 2012, so even if he does not make the Opening Day rotation, he might go down to the minors to work on starting again. Crow may not ever have the repertoire to start, and was overrated as a reliever last season, but he is certainly capable.
My choice as the Royals’ best non-healthy-Soria reliever would be Greg Holland, who surprised just about everyone with his dominance in 2011. Holland’s 2011 walk rate was lower than what he had previously at AAA, and he never struck out batters like he did in 2011, so he will probably regress a bit, but there’s certainly room for him to take a step back and still be a quality arm. His fastball-slider combination may not be great against left-handed hitters as time goes on, but he handled them better in 2011 than he did righties. Holland his a not-so-secret weapon.
It actually does not matter that much (other than for fantasy purposes) who closes for the Royals if Soria misses time. Broxton, Crow, and Holland are all good enough to end games successfully. Other pitchers like Louis Coleman and Blake Wood provide depth even if they are not world-beaters — they certainly are prefereable to, say, Jamey Wright. If Soria misses time, the Royals’ bullpen should still be fine.
General Manager Dayton Moore and his staff have done a good job of assembling a talented and deep group of relievers that can cushion the loss of a pitcher like Soria. But this raises a a different question: does this ability to weather a potential Soria injury meant that he should have been traded a long time ago? Whatever his problems in free agency (and a few successes in that respect do not erase Moore’s disastrous ventures in free agency through at least 2009 any more than Christian Colon cancels out Moore’s general success in the draft), Moore has done a good good job of signing young talent like Billy Butler, Salvador Perez, Alcides Escobar to team-friendly deals. Soria was actually the first, signing a three-year deal back in 2008 for less than $9 million guaranteed for 2009 to 2011, with club options through 2014. This season is the first club option year at $6 million, with 2013`s option being for $8 million and 2014 for $8.75 million.
When signed, Soria was bursting onto the scened as an elite reliever, and while reliever value is much-debated, the cheap guaranteed portion and the flexibility of the club options (along with the always-tantilizing possibility that he could start without his arm flying off) meant that the deal provided good surplus value at a time when the Royals desperately needed it. While the previous off-season`s Jesus Montero-for-Soria rumor was obviously and hilariously… how can I say this politely… “dubious,” the contract did give Soria substantial trade value.
If the Royals can produce this much bullpen depth behind Soria so as to weather his loss, one has to wonder if he should not have been traded earlier, at least as early at 2010. Back then, he was guaranteed less than $3 million a season on average, with the club options still remaining. The Royals did not have the bullpen depth the have now, but they were far enough from contention that it did not matter. There is still flexibility with Soria because he is in the realm of club options now, but even so, $8 or $9 million for a closer is not nearly as great of a deal (unless you think the Papelbon deal is or should be standard).
Despite previous struggles, Dayton Moore and his staff have the Royals in position potentially to be a real force in the coming years, with few payroll commitments and a pipeline of young talent. Even if Soria was not hurt at the moment, he trade value is not close to what it was a year or two ago. Even without hindsight, the Royals current bullpen depth shows that pens can be built, and while there was no certainty back in 2010 that it would look this good, the team may have missed a real opportunity to bring back a real haul for Soria that would now be on its way to helping them even more than Soria as they look to post-2012 contention.