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Rafael Soriano Traded to Rays for Chavez

Righty reliever Rafael Soriano, a Type A free agent fresh off a dominant 2009 season, caught the Atlanta Braves off guard when he accepted the club’s offer of arbitration.

Having already ponied up for Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito via free agency, Atlanta didn’t want to spend another $8M or so on the ‘pen.

According to MLB.com’s Mark Bowman, the Braves have swapped Soriano to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for right-hander Jesse Chavez.

In Tampa, Soriano becomes a prime candidate for ninth inning duty. His injury history is extensive: Soriano’s 2004, 2005 and 2008 seasons were wiped out by elbow surgeries. But in ’09, the soon-to-be 30 year-old turned in one of the better relief performances in the majors.

In 75.2 IP, Soriano punched out a career-high 12.13 hitters per nine innings, while issuing 3.21 BB/9. His K rate placed second among relievers, bested only by Jonathan Broxton‘s 13.5 punch outs per nine frames. Soriano’s 2.99 Expected Fielding Independent ERA ranked 9th among ‘pen arms.

Soriano attacks hitters with a wicked low-90’s fastball/low-80’s slider combo. In 2009, Rafael’s heater was worth +1.42 runs per 100 pitches (his run value with the fastball since 2002 is +1.28 per 100 tosses). His slider baffled batters to the rune of +1.39 runs/100 (+1.54 since 2002).

The former Mariner doesn’t dawdle around on the mound: he goes right after the opposition. Soriano located 53.6% of his pitches within the strike zone in ’09, which ranked in the top 15 among relievers. His InZone percentage since 2002 is 54.2. Hitters struggled to do much with those pitches over the plate, as Soriano had the second-lowest percentage of in-zone contact among relievers (Oakland’s Andrew Bailey took home first place).

With the Rays, Soriano’s primary competition for save chances will be southpaw J.P. Howell.

From a scouting standpoint, Howell is the anti-Soriano. The former Royals starter cracks the mid-80’s with his fastball on a good day, and tossed the pitch less than half of the time in 2009.

Rather, Howell mixes in a bunch of low-80’s curveballs and high-70’s changeups. Both of those pitches were superb in 2009 (+1.58 runs/100 for the curve, +3.2 for the change of pace). Whereas Soriano’s high heat gets few ground balls (career 30.8 GB%), J.P. burned worms at a 51.8% clip from 2008-2009.

Despite the finesse repertoire, Howell has whiffed 9.87 per nine innings over the past two years, with 4.15 BB/9. He posted a 3.54 xFIP in 2008 and a 3.47 xFIP in 2009.

Considering Howell’s ability to toss multiple frames, Soriano would appear the be the front-runner for saves in Tampa Bay. Both are well-qualified for the role, however.

As for Chavez, the 26 year-old will be changing teams for the second time this offseason and the third time during his career. The former Rangers prospect was shipped to Pittsburgh on deadline day in 2006 in exchange for Kip Wells. He was traded to Tampa earlier this offseason for 2B Akinori Iwamura.

In three seasons at the AAA level, Chavez punched out 8.2 batters per nine innings, while walking 2.6 per nine. The 6-2 righty posted a 4.49 xFIP with the Bucs in ’09, with rates of 6.28 K/9 and 2.94 BB/9.

Chavez showed off a pair of quality secondary pitches (+3.16 runs/100 for his high-80’s slider, and +0.89 for a mid-80’s changeup/splitter). His mid-90’s gas, however, was blasted for -0.72 runs/100. The fly ball-centric reliever was plagued by the long ball, surrendering 1.47 HR/9. In Atlanta, Chavez figures to fill a 6th/7th inning role.