Soria, Bullpen Depth, and Trade Value

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.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

16 Responses to “Soria, Bullpen Depth, and Trade Value”

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  1. PiratesHurdles says:

    I wish the Pirates would have understood this concept with Hanrahan this offseason.

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    • Steve the Pirate says:

      I still think this is their mindset. I was baffled last year when they wouldn’t use him in high-leverage non-save situations. However, if you put yourself in the mind-frame that they are trying to inflate his trade value, via gaudy save numbers and not necessarily win games, it starts to make sense.

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  2. kyle says:

    Good article and analysis. You need to proof read though.

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    • Steve Balboni says:

      You need a comma after the word “proofread”.

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      • Cuban Pete says:

        And a period inside the quote marks, as in “proofread.”

        ‘Nuff sed on all these quibbling punctuation questions; we read Fangraphs, not the Chicago Manual of Style’s website.

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    • exxrox says:

      I am in the proofreading camp. Half-paragraph sentences are…clunky.

      There is the “you are not paying for it so don’t be picky” argument, but that doesn’t exactly sell me on buying FanGraphs+ either.

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  3. TAL says:

    “And a period inside the quote marks, as in “proofread.””

    Quotation marks ;)

    We’ve seen pitchers like Greg Holland crash and burn, but also tweak a little something in their mechanics, delivery, grip, “vitamin” intake, etc. and become legit closers. I’ll be following him….

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  4. Matty Brown says:

    The article is pretty redundant, you could easily condense 3 of your paragraphs into one.

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  5. jordy says:

    fangraphs+ is one big disappointment thus far. maybe there will be decent articles as the year goes, but the only good thing about it in my opinion was the “quick look” on players profiles (which don’t get updated)

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  6. Nathan says:

    I go to the comments section hoping to get some additional opinions on His Mexellency’s potential replacement…and am rewarded with a masturbatory exchange about grammar. This…sucks.

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    • exxrox says:

      Here: I think the only logical thing to do would be give Holland first crack at it (because he’s on my fantasy team), but I have a gut feeling that Jonathan “saves on my resume” Broxton grabs it anyway.

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      • Nathan says:

        I snapped up Broxton, since he appears to be healthy and pitching well, in addition to his history as a closer. Unlike some other relievers with “closing experience”, Broxton can claim “dominant closing experience”…at least in 2009…

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      • Paul says:

        They don’t do it because it would be smart, but I’d just give up on the Aaron Crow rotation experiment for now. Yes, Holland probably has better stuff than Crow because all four of his pitches are above average-plus. However, there is something to be said for having two plus pitches and just rolling with that. This is Aaron Crow, who in the first half of last season, before he started screwing around with the curve and change, had the best disappearing slider in baseball, by a pretty wide margin actually. Combine that with a hard 95-97 sinker that he commanded well enough for a late inning reliever, and he is really hard to hit.

        My concern with Holland is that he has too many pitches and suffers mentally if division opponents make an adjustment early in the season and then everybody else exposes it. This is exactly what happened to Soria. The guy had four above average-plus pitches and he screwed himself up by trying a fifth.

        The Royals seem intent on pushing Crow to be a four pitch guy, which I just think is an enormous mistake. He has sucked so far in ST. Mendoza and Duffy are the clear frontrunners for that job now, so moving him back to the pen to compete for the closer’s job is a no-brainer. They clearly won’t do it on purpose, but keep a lookout for their hand to be forced.

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  7. Nathan says:

    Well, after hearing today about the UCL…rather than hold Soria, I dumped him for Holland…now I have both candidates…assuming one of them takes charge early and does BETTER than Soria hypothetically would have…I won’t cry too much about wasting my 15th Rd pick…

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  8. Shoeless_Mike says:

    Keep an eye on Kelvin Herrera – kid throws HEAT and has a wicked change up that is still a work in progress somewhat but it is over 10 mph slower than his 95+ mph fastball…

    And to the proof readers out there – YAWN – your posts are inane.

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  9. Paul says:

    Somewhat surprisingly, Ned Yost, who it does seem has ever seen Crow as a starter, is going to get his way:

    The Royals FO drafted Crow as a starter, and he was a pretty high pick for a setup guy or even closer. It’s good that Yost can control the roster, though, and Crow’s draft position is not going to affect his utilization at least for one more year. I still wouldn’t rule out him starting in the future, but he’s a true weapon as a two pitch high leverage reliever.

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