Rafael Soriano will start next season as the Nats closer. He is not their best reliever. Taken together this is actually a GOOD thing, because it allows better relievers to be freed up to pitch in higher leverage situations (one would hope) while Rafael, a good arm but no longer a great one, can handle any pressure that may develop in the 9th.
Except what happens if/when Rafael struggles? It's coming, you know. His fastball speed is on a strict downward slope. From 93.4 to 92.8 to 92.3 to 91.4 last year, and that's because he's getting older. He'll turn 34 in about a month and he can no longer dial it up to the levels he had in the past. The K numbers show a stark drop from 2012; 9.18 K/9 down to 6.89 last year. There's a word for fastball heavy pitchers that can't dial it up past 90. Retired.
So far he's been able to weather this issue. He's been able to give out fewer base on balls. 4.12 BB/9 to 3.19 to 2.30. That's a massive improvement. In 2012 he was a slider / fastball pitcher, using the former to set-up the latter. In 2013, in part because the slider was not in itself an effective pitch for him, he started using his cutter again, a pitch that he could make effective. The results however were not the as good as 2012. Two years ago the slider (82.9 MPH) provided a sharp contrast to his waning fastball (92.3). The cutter (~91) does not. As we talked about with Dan Haren early in the year, velocity differences can help keep a hitter off balance. Not having them can be an important aspect to a decline in performance.
Another thing to note is that his contact rate went up to 81.5%. For the most part he's not making hitters swing and miss. That would be ok if he had now become a GB pitcher, but no, he actually gave up slightly fewer GBs than he did last year. Even with the drastic decrease in BB, he's seeing more baserunners because he's giving up more hits. The WHIP is up from a great 1.167 to a still very good 1.230.
The picture being painted here is pretty clear. Soriano is getting older. As he does he's losing his fastball and he's trying to compensate in a number of ways. He's a decent enough pitcher that he's held on across 2-3 years of decline, but it looks like it's starting to catch up with him. Unlike in 2012, he didn't really have an answer last year and he was a bit of bad luck away from being rocked. His improved control has allowed him to keep enough baserunners off the paths so the hits he gives up won't matter as much but there is only so much more room for improvement there. Soon, perhaps very soon, this is going to blow up.
So what, you might say, just move him off of the closer spot if it happens. In fact, as I noted yesterday, the Nats would be glad to, because they are potentially in line for a big guaranteed 3rd year if Soriano finishes out enough games*. Sorry, but that's the other issue with Rafael. He's a petulant little brat who can only perform in certain situations. The last few years bear that out
SV SIT : 3.42 ERA, 1.215 WHIP
NS SIT : 5.54, 1.462
SV SIT : 1.82, 1.014
NS SIT : 3.44, 1.582
SV SIT : 3.31, 1.163
NS SIT : 2.55, 1.415
The numbers are pretty clear (2013 may look murky but the drastic difference in WHIP should tell you it's luck that he managed a 2.55 ERA in non-save situations) and they are backed up by any interview you might have seen with Soriano. He imagines himself a closer, nothing else. Put him in the game when he is not due for a save and as we all saw this year, watch him pitch with all the interest of a teenager watching a Biology filmstrip (do they still do film strips anymore? I'm 1000 years old)
This is a huge potentially unresolvable issue hanging over the Nats head going into 2014. Soriano will be the closer. He performed well enough to keep the job and he's getting paid a ton of money. But he could easily fail out of that spot and if he does that he could very well be completely useless as he pouts his way through one subpar outing after another. The Nats would then have an 11 million dollar millstone around their necks. The Lerners likely wouldn't let Rizzo cut him (nor would Rizzo's ego) so they'd basically be carrying one useless arm in a pen that may not be able to afford that luxury.
Of course this is all conjecture. He could figure out a way to pitch better, or just repeat the mix-and-match, just good enough that you might not notice he's on the cliff year he put together in 2013. For Nats fans that's what you gotta hope for because the potential is here for a messy end to Soriano's tenure as a Nat.
*It would be tight regardless if we are just looking at regular season, but his vesting option might include postseason. I couldn't find anything on that.