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Oakland A’s sign reliever Joakim Soria

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The A’s are beefing up their bullpen once again.

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s are “close to finalizing” a contract with free agent reliever Joakim Soria, reports Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic on Thursday. The two-year deal will pay Soria around $15 million, according to MLB’s Jesse Sanchez. The pitcher must still pass a physical, which should take place on Friday, says Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle. (Update: The deal is now official, the team announced Friday morning. Soria will earn $6.5 million in 2019 and $8.5 million in 2020, via Jon Heyman of Fancred.)

This is a significant addition to Oakland’s bullpen. Soria has enjoyed a brilliant career, and even entering age 35 he’s still one of the top relievers in the game. The right-hander spent a half-decade as a dominant closer for Kansas City, converting nearly 90% of his save/hold chances during that time with sparkling numbers across the board. He then lost a year to Tommy John surgery in 2012, but he has returned to form since. Most recently, he split his excellent 2018 between the White Sox and Brewers.

Soria, 2018: 3.12 ERA, 60⅔ ip, 75 Ks, 16 BB, 5 HR, 53 hits, 2.43 FIP

He began last season as Chicago’s closer and then finished as a setup man in Milwaukee’s super-pen, and along the way he racked up 16 saves and 13 holds with only five blown (85% success).

That FIP mark ranked top-20 in the majors last season, among all pitchers with at least 30 innings. Extend to the last two seasons combined (min. 50 innings), and Soria’s 2.34 FIP is ninth among all pitchers. Take it out to five years (2014-18, min. 100 innings), and his 3.07 is top-30 among relievers — and that’s the weaker half of his overall career, post-surgery and in his 30s. And those peripherals aren’t just empty potential, either, as they line up with his 3.32 ERA since 2014 and his continued strong work holding leads.

Statcast loves him even more than those basic metrics. His average exit velocity of 83.6 mph was the best in all of baseball last year (out of 310 qualified pitchers), and so was his 88.5 mph on just balls hit in the air. He was also among the stingiest in terms of allowing hard 95+ mph contact, as well as in allowing batters to barrel the ball, and he ranked well in most of these same Statcast categories in 2017 too. Add it all up and he’s been in the top 10% of the league in xwOBA each of the last two seasons (.274, then .265). No matter how you look at it, he’s a monster in the pen.

In terms of health, the news has been great lately. Since his 2012 TJS, he’s only seen three brief DL stints — twice for an oblique and once for a quad strain, but never for an arm injury. His average velocity bumped up to a career-high 93 the last few years and his max rose to 96, so he’s throwing as hard as ever, and his consistently low walk, hit, and homer rates suggest that his control and command have remained top-notch. He carries several secondary offerings, including a change, slider, and curve.

This isn’t the first time the A’s have shown interest in Soria. As Slusser notes in her full writeup, they looked into acquiring him last winter when he was still under contract. Since then, they’ve spent the ensuing year pumping up their bullpen to help support a starting rotation that has been racked by injuries. There are already hints that they will keep experimenting with a bullpen opener next summer.

There is an obvious place for Soria in Oakland’s pen, after the team lost Jeurys Familia to free agency this winter. Familia is another closer-quality reliever who was serving as a setup man in front of the elite Blake Treinen, and now Soria can fill that vacancy alongside the incumbent Lou Trivino. The A’s now have seven relievers who should be locked into the eight-man pen on their 25-man roster: Treinen, Soria, Trivino, Fernando Rodney, Yusmeiro Petit, lefty Ryan Buchter, and out-of-options Liam Hendriks, plus a taxi crew of several more optionable arms who can stash in Triple-A if needed (Pagan, Dull, Wendelken, and former starter Triggs).

Hot takes

Nice! Let’s begin with the simple, indisputable good news: Soria is a stud. Not a buy-low gamble, not an injury bounce-back, not a breakout candidate. He’s a legit stud right now, even at his advanced age, and his health record has been excellent for years now. He’s immediately one of the best players on an already good team.

Of course, most fans’ immediate reaction will be a totally fair one: Why spend lavishly on another reliever when the A’s desperately need starters? I won’t pretend like I’m not surprised too, but I can see where the team is coming from.

The SP market is beginning to clarify, and it’s still expensive. The good news is that the contracts are getting shorter-term, but that apparently hasn’t been enough for Oakland to join in. We learned this week that it costs $9 million plus incentives to get a guy who barely threw 100 innings last year in Trevor Cahill, and that was the closest thing I’ve seen this winter to a deal the A’s should have maybe taken. They won 97 games and a Wild Card last year with a cheap patchwork rotation and a super-pen, so the blueprint has precedent even if it seems especially risky.

What’s more, Familia himself fetched 3yr/$30M from the Mets, and this is a steal in comparison. Frankly I’d prefer Soria outright even at the same price, and instead he’s on a shorter commitment and at a lower annual salary. He’s a bargain among relievers, and it’s looking like relievers are still the bargain demographic among pitchers in general.

This isn’t the move I would have guessed for the A’s, but I get it. They improved the staff in the best and most efficient way they could find, and at the very least they spent their limited money on a true star and not just some boring, mediocre stopgap. It still remains to be seen what they’ll do with their rotation, but one way or other there will be a top-notch pen waiting behind it.

Here’s the updated 40-man roster, featuring 38 players. Those in italics haven’t yet debuted in MLB. (The A’s made another move hours later to acquire infielder Jurickson Profar, so click here for the further updated roster.)

Oakland A's 40-man roster
Pitchers Hitters
Starters

Daniel Mengden (R)
Chris Bassitt (R)
Frankie Montas (R)
Tanner Anderson (R)
Paul Blackburn (R)
Jharel Cotton (R)
Sean Manaea (L)
Daniel Gossett (R)
Grant Holmes (R)
James Kaprielian (R)


Relievers

Blake Treinen (R)
Joakim Soria (R)
Lou Trivino (R)
Fernando Rodney (R)
Ryan Buchter (L)
Yusmeiro Petit (R)
Liam Hendriks (R)
Andrew Triggs (R)
Emilio Pagan (R)
J.B. Wendelken (R)
Ryan Dull (R)
Aaron Brooks (R)
Catchers

Chris Herrmann (L)
Josh Phegley (R)

Infielders

Matt Chapman (R)
Matt Olson (L)
Marcus Semien (R)
Franklin Barreto (R)
Jorge Mateo (R)

Outfielders

Khris Davis (R)
Stephen Piscotty (R)
Ramon Laureano (R)
Mark Canha (R)
Chad Pinder (R)
Nick Martini (L)
Dustin Fowler (L)
Luis Barrera (L)
Skye Bolt (S)