Rafael Soriano: The Most Expensive Holds Man In The League?

By Tommy Rancel //

Coming off a season in which he led the American League with 45 saves, Rafael Soriano headed into the free agent market as the best closer not named Mariano Rivera. After seeing lesser relievers sign multi-year deals, Soriano sat on the open market, looking for a big payday.

With nearly every closing vacancy filled – except the one he created in Tampa Bay – Soriano finally got his wish with a three-year, $35-million contract; however, he won’t be a closer. Instead, he signed with the New York Yankees to be the set-up man to the best closer who happens to be named Mariano Rivera.

Soriano stunned the Atlanta Braves last season when he accepted their offer of arbitration. This set off a chain of events that ended with him being the $7-million dollar closer the Tampa Bay Rays didn’t intend to have. Unafraid of the competition level in the AL East, Soriano racked up 45 saves while compiling a minuscule 1.73 ERA in 64 appearances. He is unlikely to replicate his low ERA in a hitter-friendly environment, but even if he regresses his career 2.73 ERA is very good.

Soriano limited the number of runs he allowed by limiting baserunners. Opponents hit just .170 off the righty and he walked just 2.02 batters per nine innings (BB/9). When a runner reached base, he was stranded nearly 82% of the time.After posting a career-high strikeout rate of 12.13 per nine innings (K/9) in 2009, he dropped down to 8.23 in 2010. The drop is significant, but is still above-average and his 11.7% whiff rate was also stellar.

Though he has the numbers and the stuff to back his status as a relief ace, the signing comes with considerable risk. First, signing any reliever to a $35 million commitment is absurd, but these are the Yankees. On top of the financial risk, signing a reliever to a multi-year deal is also playing with fire. Adding fuel to that fire is Soriano’s injury past which includes Tommy John surgery (2004, 2005) and other elbow issues (2008). He has been healthy the past two seasons, but at no point in his career has he held up for three straight years.
Obviously not closing games is a huge hit to Soriano’s fantasy value. Arguably the top roto-reliever in 2010, he now finds himself behind lesser relievers on the 2011 draft board. That said, he does hold value in deep leagues and those that count holds. Though he continues to produce at a high level, the pitches from the right-arm of Mariano Rivera are adding up. In each of the past six seasons his innings total has decreased; culminating with 60 innings in 2010. Joe Girardi has been hesitant to overuse him on back-to-back days, and Soriano’s arrival may prompt him to be even more cautious with the future hall-of-famer.

All things considered, Soriano is still one of the best non-closing relievers to consider on draft day. Even if Rivera remains healthy, Soriano should post a sub 3.00 ERA with steady peripherals and get 8-10 saves. If Rivera should hit the DL, he would get even more. Additionally, if your league counts holds he should be considered higher than some potential AL closers like Octavio Dotel or Kevin Gregg.

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