Rafael Soriano curled his 6-foot-1, 230-pound frame into a small white plastic chair Thursday evening at Nationals Park and smiled. His figure was imposing but his tone was soft. The Washington Nationals paid $28 million to have that figure — and the talent and experience the 33-year-old closer brings with him — for the next two seasons.
And if there was one takeaway from Soriano’s introduction, officially installing him in a bullpen that already contained two right-handers with significant closing experience in Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard, it was that closing games was precisely what he was brought here to do.
“Suffice it to say, Raffy is here to pitch the ninth inning,” said general manager Mike Rizzo, who flanked Soriano, along with agent Scott Boras, on the podium and referred to him as “one hell of a closer.”
“He has done it successfully everywhere he he’s been and we expect him to continue that. That’s not to say that other members of the bullpen are not going to get opportunities to finish games. We hope to be in a save situation many times during the season and I think this definitely gives [manager Davey Johnson] some options to go to.”
The opportunity to close was why Soriano opted out of his contract with the New York Yankees — after 42 saves in 2012 — when Mariano Rivera announced he’d be returning. And his experience filling in for Rivera, as well as closing for the Rays and Braves in the past, was a main part of his appeal to the Nationals.
Rizzo stressed that this move was not a reaction to the Nationals‘ gut-wrenching exit in Game 5 of the National League Division Series. “By no means is the signing of Rafael Soriano based on one inning and one game at the end of the season,” he said, in reference to an excruciating ninth inning in which Storen and the Nationals stood one strike away from victory over the Cardinals on multiple occasions.
It was, he said, simply about depth.
“You strengthen a strength and you keep moving forward and keep acquiring talent and assets to become the best ballclub you could possibly become,” Rizzo said, using phrases like “battle-tested,” to describe Soriano and pointing to his success in big games under the brightest of lights.
“He’s only going to add to what we believe is a great, young, deep and talented bullpen.”
But when the Nationals report to spring training in Viera, Fla., in a few weeks, they’ll do so with a possibly delicate situation in front of them. In a bullpen in which several relievers not only want to close games, but feel they’ve earned the right to, Soriano will be a newcomer holding all the chips.
Rizzo said Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty has spoken to Storen, who saved 43 games in 2011 and looked increasingly dominant when he returned from elbow surgery a year ago, and Clippard, who stepped up in Storen’s absence to save 32 games for a 98-win team in 2012.
Both pitchers are aware there will be a shifting in roles as they make way for their new teammate, though Johnson’s bullpen philosophy certainly makes room for more than one closer.
“I’m certainly not worried about Clip or Drew,” Rizzo said. “They’re consummate professionals. They’re confident in their abilities and they’ve got a great skill set so we’re happy as can be about the state of our bullpen, and we’re glad to have them all on board.”
The Nationals‘ pursuit of Soriano wasn’t highly publicized, nor was it brief. Boras said he discussed the possibility briefly with Rizzo at the general managers’ meetings in early November. They began a more serious discussion in the last month and the involvement of owner Ted Lerner was no doubt integral. Boras thanked Lerner for “taking his time and involving himself to the benefit of the organization, the team.”
Rizzo spoke highly of Soriano’s ability to mentor young pitchers, of which the Nationals have many, and of the obvious depth that the move provided his team. The Nationals watched Clippard in the ninth inning more than any other pitcher on staff in 2012. They watched Storen own that frame the season before. They’re handing the reins to someone else now, with the hopeful effect that it’ll make games more like six innings instead of nine for opposing lineups.