The trade of Justin Upton to the Atlanta Braves has in all likelihood made 2013's National League East race that much closer. Given that the outfielder is under contract for the next three years, as is much of the Braves' core, the landscape of division races beyond 2013 have also changed with this one move. If anything, this transaction has magnified the importance of the Nationals' most-recent major move: the signing of closer Rafael Soriano. The Upton and Soriano deals may not seem like they belong in the same sentence in terms of impact, but it just might be the case that they do.
There is a feeling that exists, especially among the stat-friendly, that relievers are generally overpaid. The crux of this argument is essentially that relievers are volatile creatures, and successful ones tend to appear from nowhere. Why spend money on relief help when it can simply be procured from failed starters or reclamation projects that can be had on the cheap? Yet, the fact that relievers are so volatile is precisely why pitchers like Soriano should be paid: since 2006, Soriano owns a 160 ERA+ over nearly 400 innings. That's the eighth-best ERA+, minimum 300 games pitched, during that stretch, and Soriano is the second-youngest of the group besides Jonathan Papelbon, who signed an even longer and more lucrative deal one winter ago.
To put a finer point on it, just 25 of the 85 relievers with at least 300 games over the last seven years even managed to be 30 percent better than average, never mind Soriano's impressive 60 percent. He's exactly what you talk about when you think of consistent and elite back-end bullpen pieces, and if not for the compensation pick attached to him, he would have been off of the market that much sooner for it.
Despite how well he's separated himself from the rest of relieverdom, to no one's surprise, many of the reactions to Soriano's signing a two-year, $28 million contract with the Washington Nationals involved eye rolling or outright laughter. But signing Soriano is exactly the kind of thing that a team in the Nationals' position should be doing. Sure, it cost them money and a draft pick, but when a roster is mostly set and there remains budget to be spent, upgrading where you can is a worthwhile tactic. The bullpen was the one obvious area of need for one of the best teams in baseball, and Soriano was more than qualified to rectify that issue.
The Nationals are set up to win now. They might have loads of young talent still in the pipeline, but there is also plenty of ready youth on the big-league roster. Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond and others are coming in to their own at the same time that the likes of Ryan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez, and Jayson Werth are enjoying the prime of their careers. Denard Span makes the outfield even more formidable on both sides of the ball, and you're in a good place when complementary pieces in the lineup are players like Adam LaRoche (.255/.327/.462 with high-quality defense at first the last three years) and second baseman Danny Espinosa (.166 Isolated Power, 37 steals at a 75 percent clip the last two years). This is a scary, multi-dimensional roster, overflowing with talent.
The bullpen, however, was a bit top-heavy after the departures of Sean Burnett, who posted a 167 ERA+ in 70 games last year, and Tom Gorzelanny, who posted 138 over 72 frames. Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard are both viable closer candidates, but they are the far and away the best parts of the bullpen. That's not to take away from Craig Stammen, who was dominant in 2012, or Ryan Mattheus, who has succeeded in his limited major league duty. Storen and Clippard have the track records and the most talent, though, and they're the central pieces. The Nationals bullpen might have been fine as it was because of the presence of this group, but if an injury were to strike -- as it did with Storen in 2012, limiting him to roughly 30 innings -- there could have been problems.
When pitchers are hurt, it generally means important innings are given to less-qualified candidates who move down the line to fill the holes created by the vacancy. Take the 2012 Red Sox bullpen: They began the year with Andrew Bailey, Mark Melancon, and Alfredo Aceves -- a dominating closer, a former closer in a setup role, and Aceves, who threw well over 90 innings of fantastic relief one year before. It had the makings of a quality bullpen for a team expected to compete, but Bailey hurt himself prior to the season's start, Aceves floundered in the closer's role in his stead, and Melancon ended up spending half of his season in Triple-A trying to correct a mechanical error. To make matters worse, former elite reliever Daniel Bard couldn't return successfully to that role after a failed trial at starting, and what was a strength in March turned into a weakness in a matter of weeks, helping to set the tone for the rest of Boston's season.
The foregoing was an extreme example, but it's not difficult to imagine a scenario where something similar might have befallen the Nationals, at least pre-Soriano. Storen isn't that far removed from surgery, and while he was good when he did pitch last season, his strikeouts were a bit down, and he's only survived a full season's workload in the majors once. Further, he hasn't yet established himself as a legitimate relief ace: he just hasn't been around long enough to do so. Similarly, Clippard struggled with the long ball in the second half of 2012, and while his strikeout-to-walk numbers didn't suffer, it's entirely possible there's some kind of command issue here. While it could be solved before Opening Day, if it isn't already fixed, it could also be the beginning of the end of Clippard as a dominant relief arm capable of throwing around 90 innings per year. He certainly wouldn't be the first to go this route, nor the last. Remember, relievers of Soriano's type are a rarity, so some cynicism is allowed with the unproven.
Throw in Mattheus, who gets ground balls often in place of strikeouts (but not that many grounders) suddenly seeing more balls go through the infield, or Stammen unable to take on the burden of high-leverage innings in place of more qualified arms, and you can see where things could unravel fast. Again, expecting this all to happen borders on paranoia, but as the Red Sox found out a year ago, these things do happen. As a wise man who didn't live to see Washington D.C. become the nation's capital is attributed as saying, "If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail."
Having Soriano on board means more depth and more elite arms. Should Storen prove healthy, and Clippard's second-half reveal itself as a momentary fluctuation rather than the start of something nasty, then the Nationals will have a trio of relief arms to bring them from the seventh to the game's conclusion, following the work of their excellent rotation. If Ross Detwiler has a rough second go of things in the rotation, or Dan Haren proves that his velocity and former self are indeed relics of the past, then the Nationals will be thrilled that they have a bullpen capable of handling the extra workload those inconveniences create. If everything goes to plan, though, and the depth doesn't have to be tested, all that will mean is that the Nationals are an intimidating force of baseball nature, from top to bottom.
Soriano cost the Nationals money and a draft pick, but for a win-now club, one in a division that could be hotly contested, those are just a part of belonging contextually. It's a credit to the front office for using their available resources in a way that improves the club in the one place where they still needed it, and even if these worst fears are never realized, the Nats are the better for it.