When is losing your closer—not long ago considered one of the best closers in the league—not a big deal? What if you have a possible replacement on your roster whose rookie season was historically good?
Bob Dutton, the Royals beat writer for The Kansas City Star, reported on Friday that Joakim Soria had decided to undergo Tommy John surgery and would miss the entire 2012 season. Soria previously needed a UCL replacement procedure in 2003 while in the low minors with the Dodgers, three years before the Royals plucked him out of the Padres’ farm system in the Rule 5 draft.
For a team expected to take a significant step toward contention, if not actually enter the wild-card race, this season, the loss of its bullpen anchor could have been difficult to overcome. Though Soria took his lumps in 2011, logging a career-worst 4.03 ERA and 3.53 FIP, he is 27 years old and just a year removed from a terrific 2010 campaign during which he recorded 43 saves in 46 tries and posted a 1.78 ERA and 2.50 FIP. Elite relievers are not easy to find, and the youthful Royals might have struggled to supplant that stability in the ninth inning.
General manager Dayton Moore added some insurance last November, taking a shrewd gamble on Jonathan Broxton. That one-year, $4 million hitch could prove to be a bargain compared to the multi-year contracts other teams have doled out to relievers in recent winters. Broxton—who was outstanding from 2007-2009 and solid in 2010—is the favorite in the race to supplant Soria this spring, according to Danny Knobler of CBS Sports.
But the Royals have an alternative should Broxton continue to falter: 26-year-old righty Greg Holland. After a rough cup of coffee in 2010, Holland emerged as one of baseball’s best young relievers last season, posting a 1.80 ERA and a stellar 74-to-19 K/BB in 60 innings. How good is that? Only three relievers in the modern era have notched a K/9 over 11.0 and a BB/9 under 3.0 while working at least 50 innings in either their first or second big-league season.
Holland joined that club in 2011. The previous members were Rafael Soriano (2003) and Takashi Saito (2006). Saito was 36 at the time, and he immediately formed a deadly late-inning duo with Broxton for the Dodgers. Soriano has enjoyed considerable success since that breakout in his age-23 season, and was arguably the best closer in baseball in 2009. ESPN’s Mark Simon explained last week that Holland’s stuff indicates his historic campaign was not a fluke.
As the Royals prepare to head back east from their spring training camp in Surprise, Arizona, Moore and manager Ned Yost still face questions at catcher, second base, and center field. Despite Soria’s untimely injury, the closer role appears to be in good hands.