After a career high fifth blown save on Monday, the Kansas City Royals announced that once-dominant closer Joakim Soria had been stripped of his role, and the new closer would be rookie Aaron Crow. My initial reaction was "...really?". Relievers are a notoriously volatile commodity, and to demote a guy who had been one of the best in the league over his career seems like a silly move. But is it really justified?
Soria has not had a good year so far, there is no denying that. In 21 innings over the first two months of the season, Soria has allowed 13 earned runs, three homers, ten walks, and 16 strikeouts. He's not lighting the world on fire. He's blown his last three save opportunities and been dealt the loss in all three of those games. But prior to his blown save on May 24th against the Orioles, Soria had only allowed two earned runs in a span of 11 innings, going 3/4 in save opportunities. Honestly, he hasn't been the best Joakim Soria. Prior to 2011, he had two months in his entire career where his ERA was above 4.00. His first two months of 2011 have both featured ERAs above that mark. His career high in walks in a single season is 19, and he's already at ten this year.
So what the hell is going on here? He's striking out fewer hitters, walking fewer hitters, and allowing more homers. But there's a little bit of bad luck going on here. Fly balls are going out of the park nearly 5% more often this season than Soria's career norm. He's allowing more line drives than he ever has in his career. And then, there's the velocity issue: Soria's average fastball is down by 1.5 miles per hour. That's a pretty significant drop from one season to the next. All of their other pitches are keeping their velocity fine, so that indicates that there's a mechanical flaw going on as opposed to an injury situation.
The man replacing Soria, Aaron Crow, is having himself a fine year. But his future is probably going to be in the rotation as opposed to the back end of KC's bullpen. He throws very hard, but not at the level of someone like Jonathan Broxton in his prime, Carlos Marmol or Craig Kimbrel. Many argue that the Royals made a mistake by keeping Soria in their bullpen in the long run as opposed to moving him to the rotation. Could they make the same mistake with Crow? I doubt it. I believe that the Royals will use Soria in lower level situations, and shifting him back to the closer's role after some time there and moving Crow to the rotation later in the year, in order to keep Crow's innings under control.
There is one main lesson from this story coming out of this situation. The Royals have Soria under control until the end of this season, with club options on hand until 2014. They reportedly had plenty of trade offers in the offseason for their closer, but opted to hang on to him. It's silly to not trade a reliever when you're a fledgling, young team who needs help in other areas. The old adage in fantasy baseball goes "never pay for saves". A good closer can emerge from anywhere in spring training. Hell, the Royals have a guy by the name of Tim Collins who looks to be the closer of the future, as the diminuitive rookie has struck out a batter an inning (while walking nearly as many) and has shown himself to have blow away stuff at times. But the Royals passed on those trade possibilities to keep Soria. Former Royal Kyle Farnsworth is proving to be a fantastic closer for the Rays, and you have to wonder if Kansas City couldn't have signed a guy in the mold of Farnsworth to serve as closer for their team while gaining the maximum return for Soria. Soria is now valued much lower as a commodity due to his struggles this year, and if he continues to struggle this season, you have to at least ponder the possibility that Kansas City would decline his 2012 option, and let him walk away. If that were to happen, and the Royals were to get nothing for one of the most dominant closers in the league from 2007 to 2010, you have to believe they'd be kicking themselves after not pulling the trigger following the 2010 season.