PHOENIX – The confidence expressed by Arizona Diamondbacks’
general manager Mike Hazen may appear exaggerated. Admitting he is building the
club for the future, Hazen explained the signing of free-agent veteran reliever
Joakim Soria is likely a stop-gap measure. A look into the past, Hazen hinted,
is not a guarantee window on the future.
Admitting the current off-season is as strange as unproductive, Hazen told a group of reporters Monday morning that Soria will compete for a number of roles. Within the dynamics of the current game, the concept of a true closer is changing, and no longer confined to the back end of the bullpen. The presence of Soria, a two-time All-Star with the Kansas City Royals, could bide time for other players to develop.
“(For the 2021 season), we anticipate a younger bullpen,” Hazen acknowledged in a Zoom chat. “Through spring training, merit will be used to establish roles. For me, I believe relief pitchers have greater comfort in knowing their roles.”
That outlook is changing.
The Tampa Bay Rays were one of the first teams to start a reliever and instead of identifying “a closer,” the pitcher which began a game had the moniker of “an opener.” Hazen would not admit to going that far but recognized the changing nature of a reliever’s use and role.
In the case of Soria, who will be 37-years-old on May 18, the Diamondbacks are in desperate need of a closer and Hazen, for one, would never characterize need in such drastic terms. For a team to compete on a high level, a productive closer needs to record between 42 and 47 saves. Soria’s recent history does not address that requirement.
For his All-Star seasons, the native of Monclova, Mexico was highly efficient. In 2008, he recorded 42 saves and a 1.60 ERA. That season was pretty much replicated in 2010 when he recorded a career-high 43 saves and posted a 1.78 ERA. Since, Soria has been part of seven organizations and signing with the Diamondbacks for a reported $3.5 million for 2021, simply puts another travel sticker on his suitcase.
“As soon as last season ended, teams began calling,” he said Monday during a Zoon session. “The Diamondbacks are a good fit for me. I live in Scottsdale and my family gives me great strength. I just want to put myself in the best position to help this team.”
Since the Diamondbacks dealt Archie Bradley to Cincinnati at the 2020 trade deadline, the quest for a reliable closer was on-going. Last season, Stefan Crichton emerged as effective and turned in a credible 2.42 ERA and five saves in 26 appearances. His strikeout ratio was better than one per-inning and fanned 23 hitters in 22 innings of work.
“A closer has to be your main goal as a reliever,” Soria said. “I think everyone wants to be ‘that guy.’ It’s an important part of the team and the main goal of a pitcher is the closer.”
In recent years, Soria’s position as a closer faded. During the last full season of major league baseball, Soria was buried the Oakland A’s bullpen. In 2019, he appeared in 71 games and recorded only 69.0 innings, or less than one inning per outing.
Giving the changing nature of the bullpen, its use and construction, Hazen says he’s not quite ready to embrace an altered landscape. Then again, his use of analytics, trends, development, and crunching numbers may dictate a changed course of direction.
“I don’t think you can solely rely on one closer,” Hazen said. “It will be (field manager Torey Lovullo’s) call how to deploy his pitchers. You can’t have only one closer and so we have to have a back-up.”
Besides Crichton, Lovullo could have a plethora of contenders for jobs and that includes lefties Travel Bergen and Calab Smith along with tight-handers J. B. Bukauskas, Taylor Clarke, Jon Duplantier, Kevin Gunkel, Yoan Lopez, Corbin Martin, Humberto Mejia, Taylor Widener and Riley Smith.