Rays lock down ninth for Soriano

Rays lock down ninth for Soriano

It's an indication that the Rays are playing for right now, that they won't back down despite being financially strapped while playing in the sometimes-impossible American League East, and that they think that locking up the ninth inning is as critical an element to playing in October as anything else.

One signing signaled all of that on Friday, and though it wasn't a blockbuster name like John Lackey, Jason Bay or Matt Holliday who the Rays acquired, the deal brought much-needed security for a team that struggled without a set closer this past season.

The Rays officially completed a trade with the Braves to acquire closer Rafael Soriano the day after the Winter Meetings in Indianapolis concluded. They locked up the 29-year-old right-hander for next season, agreeing to a one-year, $7.25 million deal that avoided arbitration, which would have seen him make about that much.

"We feel like this is a significant move for us in terms of what he can bring to our bullpen," said Andrew Friedman, Tampa Bay's executive vice president of baseball operations, while addressing the local media at Tropicana Field. "We had our eyes on different guys, but I don't think any that make us feel as confident about our bullpen heading into the season as we do right now.

"We feel really good about where we are right now."

Tampa Bay essentially traded second baseman Akinori Iwamura for their 2010 closer. When Iwamura, whose $4.85 million option wasn't going to be picked up by the Rays, was traded to the Pirates last month, the club got reliever Jesse Chavez in return.

The 26-year-old Chavez then became the chip the Rays used to get Soriano from the Braves, who were fresh off signing Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito and desperate to deal Soriano after he surprisingly accepted an arbitration offer.

That caused what Friedman called a "perfect storm of events," as the Rays didn't have to surrender any of their 2010 Draft picks to acquire the Type A free agent.

Friedman admitted, "Had [Soriano] not accepted arbitration, I don't think he'd be a Tampa Bay Ray right now."

"I had been speaking to my agent and preparing mentally for whatever may happen and wherever I may end up," Soriano said in Spanish while on the phone with the Rays' staff from his native Dominican Republic. "I'm very pleased to be part of Tampa Bay's team. It's a young team, and they were just in the World Series a couple of years ago. I'm very happy to be a part of this team."

And Soriano's new team is happy to have him.

The Rays haven't had a full-time closer since the now-retired Troy Percival was injured late in the '08 run to the Fall Classic. This past season, J.P. Howell assumed the ninth-inning role for most of the year, and though he was respectable -- a 2.84 ERA and 17 saves -- the 26-year-old did not convert on eight save chances and had a 7.20 ERA in the last month of the season.

As a team, the Rays' 22 blown saves were tied for eighth most in the Majors.

Now, the southpaw Howell can step into the setup role, causing everybody else to move up accordingly and make way for Soriano, who posted a 2.97 ERA and converted 27 of 31 save chances through a career-high 77 games in his first year as a full-time closer, though he did give way to lefty Mike Gonzalez on occasion.

Soriano, who turns 30 on Dec. 19, was signed as an amateur free agent by the Mariners in 1996. Through eight years in the big leagues -- five in Seattle, then three in Atlanta -- he sports a 2.92 ERA in 278 games.

That career also includes two elbow surgeries, with one coming as recently as '08.

But considering the effect Soriano can have on their relief corps, the Rays definitely feel like they're getting a sound return investment.

"There's definitely a trickle-down effect," Friedman said. "I think it enhances our entire bullpen. I think when you can add a guy like Raffy and the success he's had in the American League, the success he's had pitching in the ninth inning, the stuff that he has and the way we feel it will translate to the American League East, adds another body we feel confident will help us preserve leads and keep games tight for our offense to come back."

Soriano's stuff consists of a fastball that nears triple digits and a biting slider, plus a changeup he throws occasionally.

Although his ERA was 4.91 in the second half of the season, compared with 1.48 before the All-Star break, Soriano struck out 102 batters while walking 27 in 75 2/3 innings -- good for a 3.78 strikeout-to-walk ratio -- and opposing batters hit just .194 against him in '09.

"This is a real need for us," Rays president Matthew Silverman said. "It's a luxury that other teams can afford, and it's something while we can't necessarily afford it at all times, we're going to enjoy having someone like him."

But somebody like Soriano didn't seem possible recently.

In fact, it was principal owner Stuart Sternberg who one week ago said, "There's no $7 million closer showing up."

Now, that new $7 million closer is not only showing up, but he's also pushing the Rays' tight payroll to possibly more than $70 million in 2010, the season before Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena become free agents.

But apparently, the Rays' focus is on winning now.

"Markets change," Silverman said. "It's something that really wasn't on the table last week, but when the opportunity arose, it was something we were ready to spring into action and take advantage of that opportunity."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.