Rizzo: '[Soriano] is here to pitch the ninth inning'
Though he went out of his way to use the words "Drew Storen" and "closer" together multiple times, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo left no doubt who will be handed the ball for the ninth inning come Opening Day: The guy he just gave $28 million.
"Suffice it to say, Raffy is here to pitch the ninth inning," Rizzo said while introducing Rafael Soriano Thursday afternoon at Nationals Park. "He has done it successfully everywhere he has been, and we expect him to continue that."
At the same time, Rizzo seemed to make it clear he intends to keep both Storen and Tyler Clippard and give manager Davey Johnson as many quality relievers as possible to pitch the late innings of close games. Storen, who dominated down the stretch last season until his blown save in Game 5 of the NLDS, will likely serve as Johnson's "B" closer.
"Drew Storen is a closer," Rizzo said. "He's going to be a closer. He's got closer stuff. He's got a closer mentality. By no means the signing of Rafael Soriano was based on one inning and one game at the end of the season."
That one inning, of course, was more notable than any other Storen pitched either of the last two seasons. And while it alone may not have prompted Rizzo to add Soriano to the fold, it probably helped convince the organization (including owner Ted Lerner) it was worth making Soriano one of the highest-paid relievers in baseball history.
The 33-year-old right-hander saved 42 games with a 2.26 ERA for the Yankees last season and boasts a career 1.046 WHIP that ranks sixth all-time among pitchers with at least 500 innings (third among those who pitched after 1917).
But with future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera set to return from a torn ACL, Soriano knew he wouldn't get the chance to close anymore in New York. So the Dominican native opted out of the final year of his contract, became a free agent and then waited it out while agent Scott Boras tested the market.
"I've always been a patient person, and Scott knows this about me," Soriano said through interpreter Luis Garcia. "He told me from the get-go: 'Just bide your time, continue to work out, do what you need to do. And when the time is right, obviously it will happen for you.' I continued to work out, do my work, being patient, and obviously when the opportunity with Washington came about, I thought it was a club that I could help now and obviously help win a World Series."
The Nationals will ask Soriano to take over the top relief role on a club many believe is the favorite to win the World Series, not to mention taking over a mentoring role for teammates like Storen and Clippard.
"We feel that we benefit having Sori on the club, not only by pitching the ninth inning, but also by mentoring a good, young, potential closer in Drew Storen. We feel that we have multiple closers on this club that have the ability to close out games. One of them is going to close out the seventh, one will close out the eighth and one will finish the game in the ninth. We feel pretty good about that."
Soriano cited his prior experience mentoring teammates with the Yankees, Rays and Braves and said he plans to do the same with the Nationals.
"To be able to help these younger players grow as relievers, as professionals, as pitchers ... it's something that I look forward to doing here with my new family," he said through the interpreter. "It obviously comes naturally from within, so I look forward to doing that and always try to take advantage of those opportunities to help these players to grow."
Rizzo said neither he nor Johnson (who has been on vacation in Africa) has spoken to Storen or Clippard (who save 32 games while Storen was hurt last season) since the signing, but pitching coach Steve McCatty has and assured both right-handers about their importance to the club.
"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 Soriano signing did cost the Nationals their first-round draft pick (29th overall) and money from their 2013 draft signing pool. It's a move this organization hasn't made in the past while at times emphasizing player development over spending money at the big-league level, but Rizzo said it made sense in this case.
"We examined the draft pool this year," the GM said. "And we felt that where we were picking and the talent pool that was out there and the chance to acquire a talent such as Rafael, it was a good time for us to forfeit the pick. It's never easy for us, because that's where our bread and butter is. But we felt that the best strategy for us to win now and in the near future was to forgo the pick and get the talent."