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January 22, 2013
The Keeper Reaper
Relievers for 1/22/13
Rafael Soriano | Nationals
The Nationals aren’t shy about padding an area of the roster that’s already deep, apparently. To the surprise of many, yours truly included, the Nats inked Rafael Soriano to a two-year, $28 million deal last week despite the presence of high-leverage relievers Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard. Interestingly, General Manager Mike Rizzo wasn’t coy about Soriano’s role: the right-hander, who spent the past two years with the Yankees, was named Washington’s closer, presumably leaving Storen and Clippard to duke it out for the seventh and eighth innings.
Boasting a tidy resume and already anointed Washington’s stopper, it’s pretty tough to argue Soriano’s inclusion among the top half of closers in MLB. Even accounting for the fact that last year’s 2.26 ERA was a bit on the lucky side (3.27 FIP), Raf-Sor is still a very solid closer option for fantasy owners; he’s coming off a 2012 season in which he posted solid strikeout and walk rates of 9.2 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9, respectively, while pitching in the tough AL East and its mostly hitter-friendly ballparks.
There are, however, some very reasonable doubts at play that should give us fantasy types pause. Obviously, Soriano is no up-and-comer as he readies for his age-33 season. There’s not any particular reason to expect a sharp age-related decline—if anything, 2012 was a nice rebound year after 2011 was mostly derailed by injuries—but the clock is ticking. Further, Soriano is no stranger to injury, having missed substantial chunks of several seasons due to various shoulder and elbow maladies, most recently just two seasons ago. And finally, the presence of both Storen and Clippard means that Soriano’s job could pretty easily be snatched away should he slump or suffer an injury.
That’s a lot of red flags for a guy who just signed for a heap of cash. But therein lies the rub—if he’s healthy, you have to think the Nats will give Soriano ample opportunity to retain the ninth-inning job in order to justify giving him all that money. The bottom line for fantasy owners is this: it’s not crazy to invest aggressively in Soriano considering his ability and the Nats’ faith in him, but any practical evaluation has to bake in some very real risk factors.
Drew Storen | Nationals (Holds leagues)
Perhaps the more interesting angle of Soriano’s signing is what it means for Storen. The Nationals’ Closer of the Present and Future™ as recently as last spring, the right-hander is in something of a career limbo after his 2012 was truncated by injury and then ended with an epic thud in an NLDS collapse against the Cardinals. Whether the Nats fear Storen isn’t sturdy enough or doesn’t have the mental makeup to close (or both?), I can’t say, but clearly they’ve changed their thinking on him for the immediate future.
Obviously, that means fantasy owners should follow suit. In standard leagues, it’s hard to see Storen as much more than a post-draft bench stash or perhaps a late-round handcuff for Soriano owners. In holds leagues, though, he becomes a much more interesting commodity as a guy who boasts closer-caliber stuff and, indeed, saved 43 games as recently as 2011.
Despite Storen’s quasi-demotion in favor of Soriano, I don’t think the Nats have plans to relegate him to mop-up duty or anything approximating it. He should be the primary eighth-inning reliever now; he’s young, good, and under team control for a few more years, not to mention the fact that the organization has invested a lot in him since he was selected no. 10 overall in the 2009 amateur draft.
As is often the case in trying to project these bullpens, however, things are never that simple. In Ryan Mattheus, Henry Rodriguez, Craig Stammen, and even lefty Zach Duke, Storen could have competent company at the back end of the ‘pen, especially if manager Davey Johnson manages it well and/or plays matchups leading up to Soriano. That’s to say nothing of Clippard, who I think will return to the long role he so capably manned in 2010 and 2011.
Even if the Nats aren’t yet sure of how they’ll use Storen, this is a case where holds leaguers would be justified in betting on talent rising to the top. I’d be pretty surprised if Storen weren’t among the National League leaders in holds by season’s end, and there’s even a decent chance he could be closing again by then.
David Hernandez | Diamondbacks (Holds leagues)
Quietly, D-Hern has blossomed into one of the better late-inning relievers in baseball over the past couple seasons. After breaking out in 2011 as J.J. Putz’s setup man—and, in fact, filling in as closer for a brilliant one-month stint—Hernandez only improved in 2012, finishing the season with eye-popping peripherals and tying for seventh among relievers with 1.6 WARP.
All that’s left is for the holds to follow suit with the rest of Hernandez’s impressive resume. His 25 holds in 2012 were good for 15th in MLB, a strong total but probably not as many as his owners would have liked considering his overall performance. His 23 in 2011 were similarly modest, although that can at least partially be explained by his cameo as closer while Putz was sidelined.
Mostly, the relative disparity between Hernandez’s skills/usage and his holds can be chalked up to the flimsiness of the stat. He certainly has the ability to lead the league in holds—or at least finish among the top five—and he literally didn’t appear any sooner than the eighth inning last season. But, as with closers and saves, it’s tough to predict holds for setup men, as there are few, if any, discernible patterns upon which we could predicate such a projection.
All we can ask for is that a setup man has both the skill and opportunity to pile up holds, and Hernandez is among the strongest in both.