Soriano gives Rays a viable end game

Steve Henson
Yahoo Sports

Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series is in reverse order of team quality and continues at No. 5 with the Tampa Bay Rays.

2009 record: 84-78
2009 finish: Third place, American League East
2009 final payroll: $71 million
Estimated 2010 opening-day payroll: $70.5 million

OFFSEASON ACTION

Protecting a ninth-inning lead is no time for an audition. And it's not a variety hour. When seven different pitchers record multiple saves in a season, there's a problem. The Rays' familiarity with the vagaries of closing time is acute, and doing something about it was prudent.

The lowest ERA by a Rays (or Devil Rays) closer in the 11-year history of the franchise was 2.86 by Danys Baez(notes) in 2005. Roberto Hernandez(notes) notched 101 saves from 1998-2000, yet he also was shaky by turns at that point in his career. A steady march of mostly mediocrity followed: Esteban Yan(notes), Lance Carter(notes), Baez, Tyler Walker(notes) and Al Reyes(notes). Even in the magical 2008 season, the miraculously resurrected Troy Percival(notes) was no sure thing, walking 27 in 45 1/3 innings before manager Joe Maddon began giving the ball to Dan Wheeler(notes), then to rookie David Price(notes).

That history lesson makes the acquisition of Rafael Soriano(notes) from the Braves by GM Andrew Friedman both extraordinary and obvious. Another year of J.P. Howell(notes) for a while, Grant Balfour(notes) on a given day and Randy Choate(notes) in a pinch wasn't going to cut it in a division populated by Mariano Rivera(notes) and Jonathan Papelbon(notes).

The deal came in two stages. Friedman didn't plan to pick up a $4.85 million option on second baseman Akinori Iwamura(notes) because he'd lost his job to Ben Zobrist(notes), so he dealt him to the Pirates for setup reliever Jesse Chavez(notes), who led all rookies with 73 appearances. Chavez, apparently, would be welcome to compete with Wheeler, Howell, Balfour, Choate et al. in the spring.

But opportunity knocked in the form of Soriano accepting arbitration from the Braves, who had no intention of paying him top dollar after they had signed Billy Wagner(notes) to take his place. Friedman pounced, dealing the inexpensive Chavez after reaching an agreement with Soriano on a one-year, $7.25 million contract.

It normally is not like the Rays to take on that kind of salary. Then again, it's not like the Rays to sign a closer who actually might end ninth-inning anxieties for an entire season: Soriano notched 27 saves and struck out 102 in 75 2/3 innings. The only caveat is his history of injuries.

Otherwise, the Rays were their penny-pinching selves, content with projecting that their young stars can continue to improve. An exception is at catcher, where they traded for Kelly Shoppach(notes), a steady defender with decent pop, to compete against Dioner Navarro(notes), whose 2009 was as disappointing as his 2008 was promising.

REALITY CHECK

The Rays only will be able to recapture their 2008 glory by playing better away from Tropicana Field. They were 32-49 on the road last season, nearly obliterating the substantial 52-29 edge they held at home. And while on the topic of won-loss splits, flipping around that 9-14 record they posted last April might be a good idea.

If Pat Burrell(notes) really is washed up at 33 and doesn't have a third walk-year renaissance – he hit 37 home runs in 2002 and 33 in 2008 with contracts expiring – the Rays could use help at DH. Production in right field might also need a boost unless prospect Desmond Jennings seizes a starting job.

A slow start by the Rays or a semblance of invincibility from both the Yankees and Red Sox could prompt Friedman to trade All-Star left fielder Carl Crawford(notes) because it's doubtful the Rays can meet his free-agent demands after the season.

RAYS IN HAIKU
Upton, Garza, Price
Evan Longoria(notes), too
Rays still exude youth

Next: St. Louis Cardinals.