It was a cold fall night three months ago when the Nationals stood one strike away from the National League Championship Series. When they were forced to turn their eyes toward the future and, difficult as it may have been, see that it was still bright.
Even after 98 wins, a division title and their first postseason berth, the Nationals' prospects for the upcoming season looked even better. "World Series or bust," manager Davey Johnson dubbed the team's 2013 quest.
In a blockbuster move perhaps more indicative of the organization's "win now" mentality than any transaction to date, the Nationals agreed Tuesday to a two-year, $28 million contract with right-handed closer Rafael Soriano. The deal, which includes a $14 million vesting option for 2015 if Soriano finishes 120 games over his first two years in Washington, was confirmed by a source with knowledge of the agreement.
General manager Mike Rizzo did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday and the Nationals did not announce the move.
The Nationals will surrender their 2013 first-round draft pick (No. 29 overall) to the New York Yankees, as well as the pool money that comes with it, because Soriano turned down the Yankees' $13.3 million qualifying offer this past November.
But that was the price that 87-year-old owner Ted Lerner, who the Washington Post reported was heavily involved in negotiating with Soriano's agent, Scott Boras, accepted in order to give his club yet another weapon for their well-stocked arsenal.
It was the price, it seems, for the Nationals to try to ensure that neither late-season fatigue nor a late-game meltdown will thwart their team this season.
Now, with Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard already manning the back end of the bullpen, the Nationals have a relief corps that contains three right-handers who've combined for 123 saves since the start of the 2011 season.
The addition should also see the team's payroll surge over $100 million for the first time; it could be close to $120 million on Opening Day.
The Nationals traditionally are highly protective of their draft picks, so to see them give one up for a reliever is surprising, but perhaps emblematic of something larger: their latest step away from an up-and-coming organization to a bona-fide power.
Holding the latest selection they've ever had in the first round, the Nationals decided to forfeit the future assets and add the extra salary to assure themselves significant depth -- something they'd likely never have done in the past.
But adding Soriano also allows the Nationals flexibility alongside that depth.
The team, which has been fielding significant interest in first baseman/outfielder Michael Morse, can now trade from its right-handed bullpen arms without creating significant holes. One source said in December that there was interest in Clippard, a former All-Star set-up man who saved 32 games in 2012. Both Storen and Clippard are set to go through the arbitration process with the Nationals, who were looking to replenish their prospect pool in any trade involving Morse. Without a first-round pick this summer, that need remains.
Soriano, 33, spent three years in the Nationals' division with the Atlanta Braves (2007-09) and had a 2.26 ERA and saved 42 games for the Yankees in 2012, replacing the injured Mariano Rivera. Multiple Spanish-language reports broke the news that Soriano had agreed with the Nationals early Tuesday afternoon, with the right-hander telling Hector Gomez, a Dominican Republic radio host, he was "very happy to be a part of [the Nationals'] family."
"Now we just need to go to spring training and start to work," Soriano said.
A few days after the Nationals' 2012 season ended, Rizzo and the rest of his front office were back in the office refocusing toward 2013. It was time, they knew, to move on from a gut-wrenching end to a historic season. Signing Soriano is just the latest in a winter's worth of moves to attempt to do that.
"We've got to remember how this feels," Rizzo said on that cold October night in a morbidly quiet clubhouse. "And make us better for it in the spring."
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