The Nationals Should Trade Rafael Soriano

The Nationals were supposed to be one of baseball’s best teams. They led the majors in wins a year ago, and this year, they were going to have a full season of both Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, plus they added Dan Haren to fill out their rotation and Rafael Soriano to save games in the ninth inning. On paper, they looked like a team with few holes.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Harper got hurt, Haren has been terrible, and pretty much every role player the Nationals were counting on has taken a step backwards. The result is that they currently sit at 35-36, seven games back of Atlanta in the AL East race. As they head for the trade deadline, they’ll almost certainly be looking to boost their offense in order to make a strong push for at least a wild card and give them a better chance of running down Atlanta, but I have another suggestion: they should trade Rafael Soriano.

This is not to say that I think the Nationals should give up on 2013 season and start playing for the future, but I do think they can make themselves better for 2014 without really harming their chances of winning this year by using Soriano as a trade chip.

If the Nationals made Soriano available, there would be a market. There’s no secret that the Detroit Tigers are in need of a closer upgrade, as Jose Valverde is doing what you expect Jose Valverde to do — give up runs and generally instill fear into all Michigan natives every time he takes the mound — and Detroit cannot enter the postseason again with him as the de facto ninth inning guy. The Diamondbacks might also need a closer upgrade to reach the postseason, with Heath Bell giving up home runs left and right while J.J. Putz’s elbow keeps him on the shelf. There would be contenders interested in acquiring Soriano from the Nationals.

So, if the Nationals were able to take advantage of the demand for a quality closer, they could not only clear $14 million in salary off the books for 2014 that could be reallocated to an offensive upgrade next year, they could potentially turn Soriano into a piece that they need more than a one inning reliever. With the other options in their bullpen, trading Soriano might not even make their team substantially worse this season, and if they can turn Soriano into a decent back-end starter, it might even make them better.

Before Soriano was acquired, Drew Storen was in line to close games for the Nationals this season. His 4.34 ERA might suggest that it was a good thing they moved him to a setup role, but Storen’s underlying performance suggests he’s mostly back to the pitcher he was two years ago when he saved 43 games.

Storen, 2011: 6.6% BB%, 24.4% K%, 47.3% GB%, 3.32 FIP, 3.14 xFIP
Storen, 2013: 5.5% BB%, 21.9% K%, 52.9% GB%, 3.74 FIP, 3.35 xFIP

He’s gone slightly more towards a contact/ground ball profile at the cost of a few strikeouts, but the overall package is about the same, and he might trade some of those ground balls to get more strikeouts if moved back to the ninth inning role. Either way, Storen’s peripherals suggest that he’s more than capable of handling the ninth inning, and the drop-off from switching Storen out for Soriano wouldn’t be dramatic.

Of course, they’d have to replace Storen in the setup role, but 22-year-old Ian Krol — acquired as one of three prospects from Oakland in the Michael Morse trade over the winter — is flashing serious potential since his promotion, striking out eight of the first 22 batters he’s faced while throwing a fastball that tops out at 96. By trading Soriano away, they’d essentially be creating higher leverage opportunities for Krol, who will make the league minimum for the next few seasons and could become a dominant setup man in front of Storen.

That isn’t to say that Krol is Soriano’s equal, but it is hard to argue that the Nationals are better off with Krol pitching middle relief in front of Storen/Soriano than they would be with $14 million to spend this winter and the talent they could get back from shipping Soriano to a team with fewer quality bullpen options. Especially if Detroit or Arizona decide that Soriano is the piece that could put them over the top, the Nationals might be able to turn their relief depth into a valuable player for the future, similar to how they flipped Matt Capps for Wilson Ramos back in 2010.

Thankfully for the Nationals, both Detroit and Arizona are swimming in starting pitching depth, which is an area of need for the team with Haren’s struggles and a lack of quality options in the high minors. If Mike Rizzo could turn Soriano into a decent #5 starter, the difference in performance from that rotation spot could offset any downgrade they see in the late innings.

And, as an added perk, putting Soriano in play might make things a little more complicated for the division rival Phillies. Jonathan Papelbon has been assumed to be the potentially available proven closer in the NL East, and without any other competitors trading off ninth inning specialists, the Phillies might be able to extract some value in exchange for their closer while clearing salary off their own books, which they could then use to retool their roster in order to better compete with Washington in the future. Any team acquiring Soriano would only be on the hook for his salary through 2014, while Papelbon is signed through 2015 at essentially the same annual salary. The monetary difference alone should make Soriano more appealing, and Washington could essentially undercut the trade value of one of their closest competitors.

While trading Soriano might be viewed as a sign of giving up on the season, they could offset the negative PR by making simultaneous offensive upgrades and give their team a similar chance to sneak back into the playoff race that they have now. If it doesn’t materialize, they’ve freed up salary to allow for a more active off-season and a better team in 2014. Trading away talent isn’t always the same thing as giving up, and in this case, the Nationals can trade from a surplus to help their organization overall.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.
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Soriano for Smyly, let’s make it happen!