The Rangers rolled into winter meetings week faced with the necessity of addressing no fewer than four areas of need (catcher, outfield, starting pitcher, and relief pitcher), and after addressing one of those needs late Sunday night by re-upping Geovany Soto, they attacked another area of need Monday afternoon by grabbing free-agent right-hander Joakim Soria on a reported two-year, $8 million deal. Texas has not been averse to pursuing pitchers coming off serious injuries during the course of the Jon Daniels era (see Eric Gagne, Brandon Webb, Rich Harden, Joe Nathan, et al.), and the Soria signing is an extension of the organization's M.O. on that front, as the Rangers again attempt to buy some serious future value on the cheap.
Soria, 28, has a rather fascinating career arc -- he was inked by the Dodgers as an international free agent at the age of 17 (in October 2002), but lost his entire 2003 season to Tommy John surgery, was released a year later, and then leveraged his comeback 2005 indy-league campaign (Mexican League) into a new pro-ball opportunity with the Padres. One year later, he was procured by the Royals in the Rule 5 draft, and from 2007-11, Soria reigned as one of the undisputed best relievers in professional baseball, throwing down elite relief numbers on an annual basis and earning some peripheral Cy Young Award support with a 10th-place finish in the 2010 AL CYA balloting:
|162 Game Avg.||2.40||68||37||72||292||181||1.043||6.9||0.7||2.5||9.7||3.92|
The 2011 calendar year found Soria's performance slipping across the board, and 2012 brought about more unfortunate news, as Soria underwent a second Tommy John elbow ligament replacement procedure in early April. This is where things become a tad murky, for a couple of reasons: first, there's a natural comp to be made here between the Soria signing and the Nathan signing (both formerly elite relievers who underwent Tommy John surgery and were subsequently signed by the Rangers), but Nathan was two-plus years removed from his procedure when he made his first regular-season appearance for Texas back in April. His 2011 "recovery" season in Minnesota, meanwhile, was characterized by replacement-level performance out of the Twins bullpen.
That's an important distinction to keep in mind for the purposes of forecasting Soria's performance, because in no way is it realistic to expect Soria to recapture his previous bullpen ace form right out of the gates. Most sources seem to be pegging Soria's tentative return date around May, which would give him roughly 13 months of recovery time; a bullish projection might have Soria struggling to get his feet back for the first 2-3 months after his return and grappling with consistency-related issues down the stretch, which is a nice way of saying that Soria isn't the greatest bet in the world to generate good value out of the Rangers' bullpen in 2013. Yes, he might quickly hop back on the horse with stronger numbers than what Nathan produced during his own recovery season, but I don't think you can realistically hope for much more than middle relief-type numbers out of Soria in 2013.
The other reason why the Soria situation is murky is because this is his second Tommy John procedure, and that places him among a comparatively small group of pitchers. Dr. James Andrews said earlier this year that the success rate for pitchers recapturing their pre-injury form following a second Tommy John procedure was close to 20 percent; however, the success rate for relievers coming back from multiple Tommy John procedures is better than it is for starters, and given that Soria isn't an especially hard thrower in the first place, I think you have the basis for some hope that he'll be able to hold up physically and eventually get back to a place where he can approximate his 2007-11 production.
In that regard, the news that the Rangers managed to tack on a third-year team option is pretty noteworthy -- if things work out in the way they're no doubt envisioning, Soria will be mediocre to decent in 2013 (with some chance of things clicking later on in the season, hopefully just in time for the playoffs), and very good to elite in 2014-15, when the Rangers will have club control over Soria at market-level or below-market prices. The annual salary breakdown hasn't yet been made public, but one would expect to see Soria pulling down $3 million or less in 2013, with a climb in his 2014-15 salaries proportionate to the expected improvement in his performance.
And sure, it could blow up in their faces. There's a decent chance that Soria never really makes it back, that his rehab hits a snag, that he can't get his command within the strike zone back, that he ends up being physically unable to recapture his old form ... but if worse comes to worse, it's an $8 million obligation amortized over multiple seasons. The Rangers don't want to have to survive a hit like that, but they do have the ability to survive a hit like that. That, I think, is an especially attractive feature of this deal; yes, it's a fairly significant risk, but relievers are inherently risky as is, Soria has a truly elite relief pedigree, and I'll happily take a high-beta deal with an attractive potential payoff and survivable downside over a big-money relief contract any day of the week.
Update: Per the usual suspects on the Rangers' beat, the Soria contract has been finalized, and as previously reported, it's a two-year, $8 million deal with a third-year team option. The annual salary breakdown has not yet been disclosed, nor has the value of the third-year option or its associated buyout.