ST. PETERSBURG — Rafael Soriano isn't likely to make much of a grand entrance when he walks into the Rays spring training facility for the first time next week. Quiet, serious, even grim to outsiders, all business with a glare to match, he's not much for attention-grabbing antics or even clubhouse chatter.
It's on the mound, the game on the line and three outs to go, where Soriano will make his presence known.
"Now, we don't have a closer by committee — we know who our guy is," starter Matt Garza said. "It's not six guys jumping off the bench in the eighth inning going, 'Who's throwing?' It's one guy."
And heading into a season of grand expectation, that "one guy" is the one guy who could make the most difference in the team's success.
Enough so that the Rays — unexpectedly, if not uncharacteristically — invested $7.25 million in him for a two-tier upgrade to their bullpen. They are confident that they added a pitcher with the ability (specifically swing-and-miss stuff), mentality and experience to handle the closer's role in the rugged AL East, and that their other relievers, such as J.P. Howell, Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour, will be more effective in earlier inning matchups.
"I think there's a real benefit of the trickle-down effect," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said.
The Rays tried it, and tried it, and tried it, without a true closer last season — at least not after Troy Percival wore out in May — and it showed. Relying on manager Joe Maddon's matchup style and riding Howell until he wore down, they had a major-league-high nine pitchers record saves, their 22 blown saves were third most in the AL and their 65.1 save percentage ranked eighth.
Also telling: Their relievers worked an AL-low 4571/3 innings but made a league-high 510 appearances.
The plan was taxing physically and mentally as the relievers had to prepare for numerous situations on a nightly, and sometimes several times a night, basis. "I think that kind of took its toll on us last year," Wheeler said. "If you can gear up for one area, it's not as draining."
The Rays weren't philosophically opposed to having a closer, more financially defiant. They didn't feel they could devote the required significant share of their limited resources to a guy who pitches just 60-70 innings.
But then Soriano happened, in what Friedman calls "a perfect storm" of events. First, Soriano was unexpectedly available, forcing the Braves to trade him by accepting arbitration after they'd already decided they preferred veteran Billy Wagner. Then, the Rays were able to get him for a relatively slight cost (prospect Jesse Chavez, whom they'd acquired from Pittsburgh for Akinori Iwamura) and just a one-year commitment.
The benefit should be obvious, starter James Shields said.
"I think one of the problems we had last year was that those guys in the bullpen didn't really have a role, they didn't really understand when they were coming in," he said. "Having Soriano, knowing we're going to have a closer, these guys are going to feel a little more comfortable."
That comfort factor is important, Wheeler said, suggesting a return to the format that worked so well for much of the 2008 championship season — matchups early and Percival at the end.
"It will help us out knowing if we have a lead in the ninth inning we're not going to have to have a couple guys up," Wheeler said. "We're going to have one guy going out there — win or lose, he's our guy."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]