Tampa Bay Rays acquire closer Rafael Soriano from Atlanta Braves

INDIANAPOLIS — The Rays hope acquiring Rafael Soriano to finish games puts an end to the problems at the back of their bullpen.

Soriano, an unexpected, expensive pickup in a trade with the Braves, gives the Rays a legitimate closer with the ability and experience to be successful. The deal was completed Thursday and will be announced today.

Soriano, who turns 30 this month, saved 27 games in 31 tries for the Braves last season, mixing a fastball and a nasty slider. The right-hander compiled some impressive numbers: a 2.97 earned-run average, 102 strikeouts (against 27 walks) in 752/3 innings, and a .194 opponents batting average, including .138 vs. right-handers and .153 with runners on base, fourth-best in the majors.

"You don't want to see him out there in the ninth inning," Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He's pretty automatic. He's real good. He's got command; he's got an out pitch. That's a good pickup by Tampa."

"He's legitimate," Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said. "(The Rays) needed him. He's going to be a great addition."

For the just more than $7 million he will make, Soriano brings two important assets to a squad that tried, but failed, to win consistently without a proven closer. The Rays' 22 blown saves were eighth most in the majors last season, their 65.1 save percentage (41-of-63) 18th best.

One asset is the kind of stuff — especially a swing-and-miss arsenal — to compete in the rugged American League East.

"No question," Gonzalez said. "It doesn't matter who (Soriano is) facing. This guy is pretty good."

The other is the mental makeup and desire to handle the pressure of the role — and the nasty scowl to show it.

"He's got a presence about him," Riggleman said.

"He doesn't scare," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He has ice water in his veins. You watch him, and you'll know. And he wants to close."

There are some questions about him, however.

Last season was Soriano's first as a primary closer, and he didn't keep the job all season, struggling in stretches and giving way to Mike Gonzalez.

He finished poorly, with a 4.91 ERA, 0-5 record and three blown saves after the All-Star break. Though he worked a career-high 77 games, he has had two elbow surgeries, ligament replacement in 2005 and ulnar nerve transposition and bone spur removal in 2008.

The Braves let Soriano become a free agent because they didn't want to do the long-term deal he sought and instead agreed to a one-year, $7 million deal (and an option) with the more experienced Billy Wagner.

Soriano apparently sensed he wouldn't get a long-term deal elsewhere, so he unexpectedly took the Braves' offer of arbitration.

That put Atlanta in the position of having to trade him instead of getting draft-pick compensation, with Soriano getting the right to approve any deal made before June 15.

That's why it didn't cost the Rays much to get him — just reliever Jesse Chavez, whom they acquired from the Pirates last month in a trade for second baseman Akinori Iwamura, whose option the Rays were not going to pick up.

But it still is a major investment, as they reached agreement with Soriano on what is believed to be a one-year deal for just more than $7 million, and paying all of it.

The unexpected increase, approved by principal owner Stuart Sternberg, could push the payroll close to $70 million and is a sign of the commitment from ownership to try to win next year, as the Rays face the possibility of losing Carl Crawford and Carlos Peña as free agents after the season.

FAST FACTs

Rafael Soriano

Position: Closer

Throws: Right

Age: 29

Size: 6 feet 1, 220 pounds

Hometown: San Jose de Ocoa, Dominican Republic

Stats: In eight big-league seasons, Soriano is 8-18 with a 2.92 earned-run average and 43 saves (in 57 chances).

Skinny: Signed by Seattle in 1999 as an outfielder, Soriano was converted to reliever and pitched part of five seasons with the Mariners before a trade to Atlanta in 2006. He is expected to be the Rays' full-time closer.

Family: Three daughters, two sons

Joe Smith,

Times staff writer

Rafael Soriano by the numbers

27 Saves in 31 chances last season with the Braves, Soriano's first as a primary closer.

2.97 Earned-run average last season.

102 Strikeouts vs. 27 walks in 752/3 innings.

.153 Opponents' batting average with runners on base, fourth-best in the majors.

Tampa Bay Rays acquire closer Rafael Soriano from Atlanta Braves 12/10/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 11, 2009 12:26am]

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