The elbow injury to Joakim Soria is terribly unfortunate, and possibly career-ending, at least with respect to his career as a member of the Kansas City Royals.
What the injury wasn’t was particularly surprising.
There’s not a ton of analysis to do on Soria’s injury. He blew out his elbow and required Tommy John surgery in 2003, when he was a 19-year-old in the Dodgers organization. The injury caused him to miss all of 2003, and he didn’t pitch in 2004 either, although he was probably in extended spring training much of that time. The Dodgers released him after the season, and he went back to pitching in Mexico in 2005, where he caught the eye of the Padres, he joined their system in 2006 while continuing to pitch in Mexico…and the Royals plucked him in the Rule 5 draft that winter, whereupon Soria, whose stateside experience had peaked with 12 innings in the Midwest League the year before, instantly became one of the best relievers in the American League.
(Quick aside, when I was down in Surprise last month, I was introduced to a group of Royals scouts before a scrimmage. “Rany, have you met Louie Medina?” I was so excited I didn’t even say hi, I just blurted out, “You’re the guy who’s responsible for Joakim Soria!” “Partly,” he responded modestly. “Soria is the guy most responsible for Joakim Soria.”)
While Tommy John surgery has revolutionized the game by allowing pitchers to recover from a major injury at 100%, one of its side benefits is that by giving pitchers a brand-new ligament in their elbow, there’s typically a “honeymoon” period, whereby the new ligament is almost guaranteed to hold up for five years after the surgery. It’s very, very rare for a pitcher to fully recover from Tommy John surgery, only to tear the new ligament within five years.
And right on schedule, Soria’s elbow didn’t give him any problems through 2008…but in 2009, his arm started barking a little, causing him to miss a few weeks an dlimited him to just 47 appearances. (I’m honestly not sure if it was his shoulder, his elbow, or both. The Royals initially denied that he had any injury at all, remember.)
Soria was back in peak Mexicutioner form in 2010, but in 2011, something was wrong from the beginning. By the end of May he had a 6.55 ERA and five blown saves, which was already a career high. Everyone panicked, myself included. It wasn’t simply that Soria was pitching poorly, it was that he wasn’t pitching like himself. His once-unhittable curveball had simply disappeared. He was throwing this weird cutter that he didn’t need and that didn’t work.
The Royals were convinced that there was nothing structurally wrong with Soria, and to their credit, he pitched like vintage Soria from June 1st onward: in 38 innings, he had a 2.58 ERA, struck out 41 batters and walked only seven. On paper, it looked like he was back.
On the mound, it wasn’t as clear. He still rarely threw his curveball – according to Pitch f/x data, here is the frequency with which Soria threw the Guillotine:
It’s a testament to Soria’s command and his fearlessness on the mound that, despite missing his best off-speed pitch, and despite a fastball that averaged only 91, he was still an elite reliever in the second half. But the question as to what happened to Soria’s feel for his curveball remained. So did the question as to whether he could ever get back to his pre-2011 form.
Those questions only intensified when Soria started getting lit up from his first outing in spring training. During that same Royals’ scrimmage, Soria gave up three runs to his teammates – every other Royals pitcher on both teams gave up two runs combined. In three official spring training outings, he gave up 10 hits and 7 runs in 3.1 innings. In a “B” game against a bunch of Rangers minor leaguers, he got torched.
And then his elbow went pop. After seeing three different physicians, Soria finally accepted the inevitable and will undergo Tommy John surgery with Dr. Lewis Yocum on April 3rd. In a perverse way, the fact that Soria needs this surgery might be the best thing possible for his long-term career. Even when he was pitching well in the second half of last season, the magic was gone. The way he was pitching early in spring training had me terrified that he was going to reprise last season again, and that he’d cost the Royals three or four wins early in the season before they tried to adjust.
Instead, we now have good reason to think that Soria’s struggles last year were health-related after all. And there’s good reason to think that with a healthy elbow, he can return to being the Soria of old. My friend Will Carroll assures me that a second TJ surgery, while rare, has the same success rate as the first one. Soria’s previous ligament lasted him eight seasons; there’s no reason to think his next one won’t last just as long.
I can’t fault the Royals or their training staff here – at least not since 2009, when their mishandling of his symptoms was just a small part of the injury cluster that caused me to blow my stack. Whether it’s his relatively slight build, his mechanics, or the strain that his curveball put on his elbow, Soria may simply be prone to this kind of injury. It was probably inevitable that this day would come.
Which, of course, makes the Royals’ repeated refusal to even consider trade offers for him so damning.
I don’t feel like re-hashing the did-the-Yankees-offer-Jesus-Montero-or-not discussion. Clearly they were very interested in Soria, not only because Soria was one of the best closers in baseball, but because Soria was pretty clearly the most Riveraesque closer in baseball. His repertoire was different – there’s only one pitcher in baseball who can throw that cutter – but Soria’s demeanor and unflappability on the mound would have particularly appealed to the Yankees, who saw him as someone who could survive the fishbowl of New York, and be perfectly positioned to succeed Rivera whenever the Greatest Closer of All Time decided to abdicate his throne.
Was Montero formally offered? I have no idea. Was Montero discussed? From media reports, up to and including Jayson Stark’s most recent appearance with Soren Petro, almost certainly. Were the Yankees willing to offer a substantial amount of talent for Soria, Montero or not? Without a doubt. Were other teams interested in Soria? Of course.
Did the Royals screw up by not selling high on Soria? Do I really have to answer that question?
Jesus Montero wouldn’t fit the Royals’ roster at all, but then you see what Montero finally brought back – Michael Pineda – and you try to envision what the Royals’ rotation would like with him at the front of it…
I don’t want to come down too harshly on the Royals. Frankly, while I felt that the Royals should have traded him, I wasn’t nearly as forceful on the issue as I should have been. The reason I didn’t lay the hammer down is the same reason the Royals didn’t trade him: we loved Soria too damn much.
From 1998 to 2006 the Royals had the worst bullpen over a nine-year stretch in major league history. Dayton Moore was hired in 2006, when the Royals’ closer was Ambiorix Burgos, who 1) had a 5.52 ERA, 2) blew a franchise-record 12 saves in 30 opportunities, and 3) was one of the most malignant people ever to wear a Royals’ uniform – in a just world he’d probably be locked up for the rest of his life.
The other relievers in the pen were lefties Jimmy Gobble (5.14 ERA) and Andy Sisco (7.10 ERA), and right-handers Joel Peralta (4.40 ERA) and Elmer Dessens (4.50 ERA). Jeremy Affeldt (5.91 ERA) and Mike Wood (5.71 ERA) made cameos. Todd Wellemeyer, with a 3.63 ERA – despite having as many walks (37) as strikeouts (37) – was the best reliever on the team.
Joakim Soria was taken in the Rule 5 draft after the season, and this obscure kid from Mexico who no one had seen before was dropped into the nuclear wasteland of a bullpen the following April, put on a HAZMAT suit, and started kicking ass and taking names. After recording two outs in a 7-1 game in his major-league debut, Soria was brought in to protect a 3-1 lead in the eighth inning his next time out – he had graduated to being the team’s set-up man after one appearance. He threw a scoreless inning. In his third outing, he got four outs to protect a 2-0 lead in the seventh and eighth, only David Riske gave up three runs in the ninth to lose the game.
In his fourth major-league appearance, Soria was the Royals’ closer. It was six up, six down, three by strikeout. He would give up the closer’s role temporarily when Octavio Dotel came off the DL, but it was returned to him when Dotel was traded in July, and he’s held it ever since.
Soria was the vanguard of a revamped bullpen which included Riske (2.45 ERA) and Zack Greinke (3.54 ERA before returning to the rotation). Even Gobble had a 3.02 ERA. In 2006, the ERA of the Royals’ bullpen was 5.41. In 2007, it was 3.89. Dayton Moore had accomplished a miracle, but even he knew that it was Soria who wielded the staff.
That doesn’t excuse Moore’s decision to hold on to Soria at all costs, but it does explain it. Of all the mistakes a sports organization can make, excessive loyalty to its own players is the most understandable from a human standpoint. Bill Belichick is perhaps the most unsentimental executive in sports; he’s always willing to trade his players at the peak of their ability, if he senses an arbitrage that will make his team better. It’s a philosophy that has carried him to five Super Bowls and three championships.
If the debacle with Soria has any silver lining, it’s that it might teach Moore that a touch of Belichickian unsentimentality is a necessary ingredient to a winning franchise. But just a touch. For all his success, Belichick comes off as a bit of a dick. And personally, I’d rather that the guy running the Royals not be a dick. (That’s what we have the Chiefs for.)
And even Belichick is probably going to stick with Tom Brady when the Golden Boy is 47 years old and can’t throw a spiral more than ten yards.
That’s all spilled milk under the bridge now. (I’ll take “mixed metaphors for $400”, Alex.) The question is what do the Royals do going forward, because the sad reality is that while Tommy John surgery might be the best thing for Soria, it might be the worst thing for the Royals. Soria is already making $6 million this year, and he has an $8 million option for 2013 and an $8.75 million for 2014. Those options are worthless at this point; no one’s going to pay him $8 million in his first year off surgery, when he might miss the first month of the season before he’s ready to pitch.
That means that, for all intents and purposes, Soria is a free agent. But it also means the Royals have the opportunity to re-sign Soria and save money in the process. Both sides have shown loyalty to each other – Soria by signing a team-friendly contract early in his career, the Royals by repeatedly refusing to trade him. There should be a strong relationship here, one that the Royals should make use of by offering Soria a new contract for 2013 right now.
Let’s say the Royals tear up his options for 2013, but sign Soria to a guaranteed contract for, I dunno, between 3 and 4 million for next year. (He’s going to earn $750,000 anyway when the Royals decline the option.) This gives Soria the peace of mind that he’s got a guaranteed contract for next year, and it gives the Royals incentive to fully invest in his recovery from surgery.
Pitchers are generally on the mound 11-12 months after Tommy John surgery, so there’s no reason why Soria can’t be pitching for the Royals on Opening Day or close to it. Stephen Strasburg had surgery on September 3rd, 2010, and returned to the Nationals’ rotation (after three minor-league rehab starts) on September 6th, 2011. Adam Wainwright had surgery on February 28th of last year, and is ready to break camp with the Cardinals this spring. An April 3rd surgery date should put Soria on track to be activated sometime in mid-to-late April next season. Yes, there are risks involved, but about 90% of pitchers return from surgery with undiminished stuff. I think it’s worth the Royals offering him half his salary for the 90% chance that Soria pitches at 90% of his pre-injury talent level for 90% of the season.
(This also would require the Royals to adopt the standard rehab regimen for Soria, as opposed to the incredibly conservative timetable that they have John Lamb on. Lamb hurt his elbow last May, had TJ surgery on June 3rd, but the Royals have said they don’t expect him on a mound until July, that he will make “six to eight legit starts” this year, and that “he may make it as high as High-A this year.” I understand not wanting to push your young starter, but I don’t understand essentially giving up an entire year of development when the industry standard would have him on a mound a month earlier and you might get a half-season’s worth of starts out of him, putting him on course to start in Triple-A next season and be in Kansas City by mid-season.)
Even better for the Royals would be to sign Soria to a one-year deal with an option for a second season – I’m thinking a vesting option with a really low threshold, like 25 appearances or something. Essentially it would be a two-year deal, but it would give the Royals an out in the event his rehab goes really poorly. Just pulling numbers out of the air here, but a $3.5 million contract for 2013, with a $5.5 million vesting option for 2014, might work for both sides. Soria is likely to be better in his second year after surgery than his first, and it would be nice for the Royals to swing a deal that keeps him in a Royals uniform for the next two years, saves the franchise some money, and still pays Soria close to market value for a pitcher returning from a season lost to surgery. (If Soria heads out onto the market, he won't even be the only closer returning from Tommy John surgery - it was announced today that Ryan Madson will be going under the knife and is out for the year as well.)
The best recent comp for Soria would be Joe Nathan, who along with Jonathan Papelbon was Soria’s main competition for the title of “Best Non-Mariano Closer In Baseball”. Nathan had Tommy John surgery on March 25th of 2010. He was back on the Twins’ roster on Opening Day of last year, but it was pretty clear he wasn’t completely ready – on May 24th he went back on the DL with forearm inflammation, having allowed 15 runs in 15.1 innings. He missed a month, but after returning on June 25th he was pretty much the Nathan of old – while he had a 3.38 ERA after returning, in 29 innings he allowed 21 hits, walked 5, and struck out 28. After the season the Rangers were convinced enough that they signed him to a two-year, $14.75 million deal.
So there’s your template – Soria may only be about half as valuable in 2013 as he was at his peak, but he ought to be close to 100% by 2014. Reworking his contract to give him $9 million over the next two years seems a fair deal for both sides. Just today, Soria made it clear he’d like to stay with the Royals, while acknowledging that he won’t be getting $8 million next season to do so:
“I’d like to have the opportunity,” he said, “to sign back here after I become a free agent – if they don’t take the option, which is obvious they won’t take it.
“I just want to get ready as soon as possible to have the chance to pitch on the major-league level again either with this team or another one. I would like to stay here.”
If the Royals are savvy, they’ll take the “after I become a free agent” scenario out of the equation, and get a deal done with Soria a lot sooner than that. The Royals guaranteed Salvador Perez five years and Alcides Escobar four years because they felt that those contracts might save the team money in the long term. The same wisdom applies here.
As to how this affects the bullpen...it is one of the biggest arguments in favor of Dayton Moore as a GM that even with Soria out all year, and even with Blake Wood out for at least the season’s first month, the Royals still have more quality relievers than they have roster spots to accommodate them. The only substantial impact the injury has is that it guarantees Aaron Crow will open the year in the bullpen, but that was likely going to happen either way. Jonathan Broxton, Greg Holland, and Crow are locks, and Jose Mijares seems to have the LOOGY job locked down. Louis Coleman is the ROOGY (Right-handed One Out GuY), the guy who can be used to terrorize a string of right-handed hitters – they hit .180/.250/.360 against him last season – but has the stuff to hang in against lefties as well.
Barring a surprise demotion of Danny Duffy to Omaha, either Luis Mendoza or Felipe Paulino will be the long man, as they’re both out of options. (You know where I stand on that battle. You also know that the Royals are almost guaranteed to make the wrong decision.) That leaves one open spot, for the following candidates, in decreasing order of likelihood:
That’s quite an extraordinary accomplishment, that even without Soria and Wood, the Royals have no less than 11 pitchers who are worthy of a major-league bullpen spot. (Well, 10 – I’m not sold on Hottovy yet, but his new sidearm motion makes him a potential left-handed specialist if he finds success in Triple-A.) The Royals have seven or eight pitchers who would have been one of their two best relievers in 2006, or 2004, or 2002, or 2000, or 1998.
Emotionally, the loss of Soria hurts. Practically, it may barely be felt at all.
That’s particularly the case of Broxton is back to full health. He has pitched well in limited spring training innings, and he’s running his fastball up into the mid-90s. It seemed a curious decision for the Royals to sign him at the time; they were spending $4 million for a toy they didn’t need, given the strength of the bullpen. It looks like a stroke of genius now, which has led more than one Royals fan to wonder if the team already knew they would be without Soria’s services this season. Given the way Soria finished last year, I doubt that’s the case.
I think this was just another example of Moore being unable to resist a young veteran talent available on the cheap. I can’t say I blame him: Broxton is 27, the same age Jeff Francoeur was when the Royals signed him, and just a year older than Melky Cabrera was. Like Francoeur and Cabrera, Broxton is coming off a couple of poor seasons, but with reason to think he may improve – in Broxton’s case, it’s because the downturn in his performance can be traced to a 48-pitch outing in July of 2010, and that persisted until he was shut down last year to have bone spurs removed from his elbow. Broxton was a good bounce-back candidate regardless; with Soria out, his value to the Royals intensifies.
I’ve been asked by Royals fans – and by more than a few fantasy baseball players – who I think will replace Soria in the closer’s role. While Greg Holland is clearly the team’s best reliever based on performances last year, I would actually give Broxton the first crack at the job myself, and I think the Royals will decide the same thing in the next week or so.
For one thing, given the straitjacket that is put on closers in today’s game, it’s not entirely clear that you want your best reliever to close anyway. You don’t want a Burgos or a Ricky Bottalico in that role, but if you have two relievers, one of whom is capable of a 2.00 ERA and the other is capable of a 3.00 ERA, I’d probably prefer the latter in the closer’s role. That role involves an awful lot of two-run and three-run leads, and almost always requires no more than three outs of work. Let Broxton take the glory role, and let Holland do the heavy lifting, coming into tie games and coming in with men on base and staying in to pitch multiple innings.
Last season, Holland made 46 appearances with the Royals, and in 21 of them he was brought in with men on base. In 20 of them, he recorded four outs or more. Nine times he pitched at least two full innings. You won’t see that kind of usage if he’s in the closer’s role, which would be a shame.
There are ancillary benefits to making Broxton the closer. Broxton’s a free agent at year’s end, but Holland is under club control for five years, and will be arbitration-eligible in 2014. Adding saves to his resume will increase his future salary without increasing his future worth. Letting Broxton close also makes for much less drama if and when Soria returns next season; his interim replacement will have signed somewhere else, so Soria won’t be taking the glamour job away from one of his teammates.
The bottom line is that this injury is not nearly as painful on the field as it is in our hearts. Losing a half-season of Salvador Perez is probably worth two wins in the standings, but an entire lost year of Soria, based on what we saw from him last year, is likely worth only a single win. There’s still a chance for a happy ending to this, if Soria re-signs and re-discovers the magic from the first four years of his career. The thought that Soria has thrown his last pitch for the Royals is a difficult one to stomach. But I’m optimistic that we won’t have to digest that thought just yet.