Ever since GM Mike Rizzo took over, the Washington Nationals have been an offseason sleeper year in and year out. Sure, there were rumors the team had interest in the likes of Zack Greinke, Prince Fielder and so on, mostly because nobody saw their acquisitions of Jayson Werth and Gio Gonzalez coming. That is Rizzo’s MO: Wait in the shadows, and strike when a deal makes sense. No other executive does this better than Rizzo.
Another deal nobody saw coming was when the team signed Rafael Soriano after their 98-win 2012 that ended in heartbreak. Soriano, known as a prickly personality and a less than stellar teammate, had some scratching their heads and others cheering. What Washington did was strengthen a strength, making the back end of their bullpen one of the best in the game on paper. Unfortunately, games are not played on paper, and 2013 was a major disappointment that included Soriano being pulled from games as it became increasingly obvious that his attitude when not closing was significantly different than when he was closing.
Combine that with Soriano calling out Bryce Harper after not catching a fly ball in San Francisco only a few days after Harper crashed into a certain wall in LA, and it is pretty obvious why the Nationals do not want Soriano’s option to vest. Soriano’s option vests for a third year and $14 million if he finishes 120 games over the course of the 2013 and 2014 seasons. After 58 games finished in 2013, Soriano now needs to finish 62 in 2014 to have that option vest. Call me crazy, but I do not think this is something the Nationals want to happen. That’s especially true after Soriano finished with a relatively high 3.11 ERA for a closer and blew six saves as well as allowed 65 hits in 66.2 innings pitched. Throw in Soriano being 34 going into the season, and it would not be shocking if the Nationals add a bullpen arm or trade Soriano mid-season.
One intriguing bullpen arm could be Grant Balfour, formerly of the Oakland Athletics. Oakland has remade their bullpen significantly since the end of 2013, and with Balfour being 36, chances were always slim that he would return. Balfour is coming off of a 38-save season where he allowed 48 hits in 62.2 innings pitched. Balfour was a fan favorite in Oakland, known for his “Balfour rage” and bulldog’s attitude on the mound. He is a high character guy and known for being a good teammate and a strong clubhouse presence. The Aussie did have a deal in place in December with the Baltimore Orioles, but the Orioles backed out of it after being alarmed by his wrist and knee following a physical. Signing Balfour would make things very interesting for Washington as there is word that Drew Storen could be traded as a means of salary relief combined with the two-year deals signed by Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann which were both back-loaded.
Signing Balfour for one year would allow Washington to subsidize Soriano’s appearances and thus give them an opportunity to part ways either after the season or through a trade, much like what the New York Mets did with Francisco Rodriguez. It also gives them the flexibility to have both leave after the season, freeing up salary for long-term deals with the aforementioned Desmond and Zimmermann. However, it will also force Washington to remake their bullpen as chances are they probably will not sign Tyler Clippard long-term, especially after how things went with the Sean Burnett contract. And if they trade Storen, there will be many new names and faces in the bullpen for Washington. Thus, a two-year deal may make more sense for Balfour, and it may be the length Washington needs to go to acquire him. Either way, Balfour makes too much sense for Washington to ignore.