The Washington Nationals took on the role of agent Scott Boras’ “mystery team” on Tuesday, signing closer Rafael Soriano to a two-year, $28 million deal that includes a vesting option for a third year if Soriano finishes 120 games over the next two years.
Immediately, the baseball world exploded into a cacophony of thinly veiled innuendoes suggesting various degrees of coercion between Nationals GM Mike Rizzo and Boras. Most were made in jest, some not so much, but the general gist is suggests that whenever Boras can’t find a taker for a free agent, he calls Rizzo, who comes running in with his checkbook.
The jokes are cute, and during this slow time of the year we like to have our fun. But, while there’s little denying that Rizzo has among the strongest relationships of any GM with the cantankerous Boras, the degree to which the Rizzo/Boras relationship has developed is vastly overshadowing another shrewd move by Rizzo, who is quickly becoming among the best GMs in the game.
The Nationals just spent a lot of money on a closer when they had at least two capable candidates for the job—Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard —already on the roster. In that light, this sounds like the same criticism I’ve had of numerous teams this offseason, most recently the Diamondbacks, who spent $26 million for three years of Cody Ross when they already had more outfielders than starting spots.
But relief pitching is not the same as being a starter. There are plenty of innings to go around for relievers, and there’s little argument against Soriano being better than whoever the last man in the Nationals projected bullpen would have been before Tuesday. There is no doubt that the addition of Soriano improves the Washington Nationals.
But $14 million for a closer? That’s Mariano Rivera-territory, or so the argument goes.
Indeed, this contract makes Soriano the highest-paid relief pitcher in the majors. Is he the best, or most-deserving, reliever in the majors? Probably not. But he’s very good and so is his agent.
For the Nationals, this wasn’t about some back-channel between Boras clients and the Nationals’ roster, an argument that being cited by the existence of a number of Boras’ clients on the Nationals roster, and in some cases, specifically the presence of Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg (both Boras clients). Of course, no one has an answer to the question of who the Nationals should have drafted with their back-to-back first overall picks instead of two of the best prospects of a generation, simply to avoid this irrelevant dilemma.
No, for the Nationals, this was an opportunity to add additional talent, despite there not being a specific need for it. Should they not have spent the money to get better in a certain area, just because they were good there to begin with?
The price tag for Soriano is high, but the Nationals can afford it. This signing pushes the Nationals payroll into the $120 million range, which is certainly not excessive. They haven’t spoken about a budget that they have in mind, but with the money that their owners, the Lerner family, have in the bank, one has to assume that this won’t handcuff them too badly. More importantly, however, the Nationals, over the next few seasons, can afford to overpay for things like saves in ways that other teams can’t because of the amount of production they are getting from young, inexpensive players.
Harper, for instance, will make $2 million next season, but could easily be a five-to-six win player. Strasburg will make $3.9 million and should be a four-to-five win player. Ian Desmond, in his first year of arbitration, should make a little over $3 million, and even if he takes a step back, should be at least a two-to-three win player. Jordan Zimmermann has back-to-back seasons with 3.4 and 3.5 wins, respectively and is set to make around $5 million in his second year of arbitration. Gio Gonzalez should be a four-to-five win pitcher again, and will be doing so for $6.3 million, or less than Brett Myers signed for. Danny Espinosa will be a three-to-four win player for the third straight year and still hasn’t hit arbitration, playing for the league minimum for one more season.
That’s a lot of cheap wins.
With all of that inexpensive production, the Nationals can afford to bolster their bullpen with an expensive arm. Those players will all get more expensive over the next few years, but the Nationals have more money to spend and his contract is for only two years (the vesting option would have been reached by only two pitchers in the majors over the past two seasons—H/t to Jonah Keri of Grantland for that stat). By the time the Nationals may have to think twice about paying the game’s most expensive closer, they won’t be doing it any more. For what the Nationals overpaid in dollars, they underpaid in years (not necessarily for Soriano but in terms of other free agent deals for top-notch closers). There is little risk in this move, other than the money being spent, and plenty of potential reward.
Rizzo and the Nationals have correctly identified their window of opportunity to compete for a World Series title and, despite already having the deepest top-to-bottom roster in the majors, found a way to add additional talent without handcuffing themselves.
Anytime that’s the case, it’s a good move—regardless of who the player’s agent is.