Matt Williams was asked on Monday what he thinks he has in 34-year-old reliever Rafael Soriano, the closer who signed a 2-year/$28M contract last winter and then saved 43 games for the Washington Nationals in 2013?
"A guy that knows how to close games," Williams said matter-of-factly. "He's somebody that's willing to take the ball at any point. That loves to close them. That has the ability to do that and wants a ball when that situation is presented. So, again, I like the way he's worked this spring. I like his work ethic. He's been aggressive in his bullpen sessions and he's ready to go."
Soriano arrived in camp 10 pounds lighter than last year as the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore reported last week, hoping that getting in better shape this winter would help him add velocity to his fastball which dropped for the fourth-straight season from an average of 93.5 mph in 2009 down to 91.4 mph in 2013.
Soriano also told the WaPost reporter he hoped to get his slider back after he struggled with it and essentially put it away in his first season in D.C., throwing it just 15.5% of the time, down from 40.1% in 2012 and 31.2% in 2011, instead relying on a fastball/cutter combination. Soriano's strikeout numbers dropped too. The right-hander finished his 12th major league campaign with 51 Ks (6.89 K/9) in 68 games, down from a career mark of 9.15 K/9.
"'If I’ve got my stuff and they hit it, I’m fine,' Soriano said. 'I’ll take it. I got a problem when my second pitch is not there. Most of the time I throw a fastball. There’s one guy that do that [stuff]. Mariano [Rivera]. There’s nobody else.'"
In spite of his issues, Soriano finished his first season in D.C. with a 3.11 ERA, a 3.65 FIP and 17 walks (2.30 BB/9) in 66 2/3 IP over which he gave up seven home runs (0.95 HR/9) and was worth +0.5 fWAR. Soriano was particularly strong when the Nationals took off down the stretch, posting a 1.17 ERA from mid-August through September, when he saved 12 games in 12 opportunities.
Williams said yesterday he isn't judging Soriano based on what he did last season since he didn't have an up-close look at the reliever.
"I don't know him from last year," he told reporters. "There's no reference point for me other than I've seen him work and he works hard. That's what I think we've got. I think that's what stares me in the face. He's a guy that knows how to close games, has had success doing it and is ready to take the ball at any point."
The veteran right-hander likes to take things slow at the start in Spring Training as he works his way into shape. Williams explained yesterday that he and his players are going through a process now of getting to know each other on a personal and professional level and he said he is working on making sure they're comfortable enough with him to be open about how they feel on a day-to-day basis.
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"You just have to understand their body language and the more [of a] relationship you gain with guys the more you can tell if they're telling you the truth or not," he said. "So, that being said, that's part of my process. That's part of the way I have to go about it is to learn them, first and foremost, and then understand what their strengths and weaknesses are and how far we can push."
Williams said he has no concerns about Soriano and knows the veteran reliever will tell him when he's ready to go or when he needs a rest. "Sori is going to tell me," the Nats' skipper said confidently. "He's going to tell me how he feels every day. He's going to tell [Steve McCatty] how he feels every day and there are going to be times where, during the course of the season, that he's not going to be able to go. And that's not unlike any other team. But for the most part he has told me that he will be ready to pitch. If we get in a situation where we go three or four out of five, we may have to give him a day, but that's okay too and we've got guys with experience potentially that have done it before as well, so it's not going to be something that's new."
Extra motivation for Soriano? After "finishing" 58 games in 2013, he needs to "finish" 62 games this year in order for a third year in the deal he signed with the Nationals to automatically vest thanks to a clause that guarantees it if he finishes 120 games combined in the first two years of his deal. Chances are that won't happen. The contract includes a club option at $14M for 2015? Any chance the Nationals pick up that option? If not, and if it doesn't automatically vest when he finishes his 120th game, the right-handed reliever will become a free agent again after the 2014 campaign...