Having already shaken up their bullpen this offseason, the A’s are showing no signs of changing course now.
They continue to explore all options in an effort to improve a relief corps that posted an American League-worst 4.56 ERA in 2015 to go with 25 blown saves, second most in the AL.
Joakim Soria ranks as one of the premium free agent relievers available, and he’s in a good position considering this winter’s free agent relief pool is not considered a strong one.
The 31-year-old right-hander reportedly is seeking a three-year contract in the neighborhood of $27 million. That’s a whopper of a commitment for a reliever, but the A’s consider themselves players for the biggest fish available.
They added an important, low-cost piece last week, getting Liam Hendriks from Toronto in a trade for Jesse Chavez. But A’s general manager David Forst says the team continues to explore free agency and trades for more bullpen help, and that money alone won’t be a deciding factor.
“We’ve got room to spend,” Forst said.
The A’s have been linked to free agent Darren O’Day, considered by many the top reliever available on the open market. The Washington Nationals are reported as one possible landing spot for O’Day. Oakland also reportedly was interested in trading for Francisco Rodriguez before the Milwaukee Brewers dealt him to Detroit.
Bottom line, the A’s are being aggressive in their search for relievers, and Soria is one of the best out there. Here’s a look at the pros and cons of signing the free agent:
PRO: A surplus of quality bullpen arms is an excellent security blanket, because things don’t always go according to plan. The A’s felt good about their relief corps last season, even after closer Sean Doolittle was lost to a shoulder injury before spring training. But pitchers such as Ryan Cook, Fernando Abad and Dan Otero struggled unexpectedly, and the team had trouble bridging the gap to interim closer Tyler Clippard. The ‘pen as a whole never found its groove, and that set the tone for a last-place finish.
Soria was a two-time All-Star and considered one of the American League’s best closers during a five-year run with Kansas City from 2007-11. He missed the entire 2012 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery – his second time having the procedure – but has been very effective since returning from that, posting a 2.99 ERA over the past three seasons while averaging 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings during that time. He’s indicated a willingness to be a setup man, though he also boasts 202 career saves.
CON: Any way you slice it, Soria’s price tag will be huge. Paying roughly $9 million annually over a three-year deal is steep for a guy that may not even end up handling the ninth inning for his club. Soria will turn 32 in May, and given he has undergone reconstructive elbow surgery – twice – there’s a risk involved in handing him a pricey, three-year contract. It’s also worth noting that Soria’s strikeouts per nine innings have dipped each year since 2013. Meanwhile, last year’s home run total of eight was double what he gave up combined over the previous two seasons, though part of that can be attributed to his career-high 72 appearances in 2015.
PRO: Having another veteran reliever with closing experience is good insurance. The A’s look forward to a healthy return from Doolittle after two separate shoulder injuries limited him to 12 appearances last season. But truth is, given those health issues, Oakland certainly can’t take for granted that he’ll return to shutdown form. Soria would likely be slotted for eighth-inning duty, perhaps alongside lefty Drew Pomeranz. That would allow manager Bob Melvin to use the recently acquired Hendriks as early as the seventh. But should Doolittle find the going rocky, Soria would provide Melvin with an excellent fallback plan at closer.
CON: Do the A’s really need to make a big splash with the bullpen? They’ve added Hendriks, they can cautiously assume Doolittle will be healthy from the get-go, and Ryan Dull could provide a season-long boost after showing flashes of potential in September. The A’s have acted aggressively in previous winters addressing the bullpen. Think back to January 2011, when they signed free agents Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes to multi-year deals within a day of each other. But the A’s also have found success with low-profile bullpen additions such as Otero, or converted starters such as Pomeranz. They could feature an improved bullpen without throwing big money at Soria.
FOR IT TO HAPPEN … The A’s need to believe they can legitimately contend by, say, the 2017 season. It makes no sense to make a costly three-year commitment to a veteran like Soria if he’s not going to be a factor in locking down victories consistently. He’s not going to be a building block for the future. He’s going to be a highly paid late-inning weapon, one that best fits a team that is challenging for a division title.
PREDICTION: The bidding will be competitive for Soria given the lack of depth in the free agent relief market. Given how much A’s relievers were hurt by the long ball in 2015, the feeling here is that the A’s will look at Soria’s spike in homers allowed last season and decide to go a different direction. The Nationals seem like a possible suitor for Soria if they don’t land O’Day, and particularly if they wind up trading Jonathan Papelbon and Drew Storen.