One can only imagine what was going through Drew Storen‘s head as he stepped onto the mound in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals. Storen was about to pitch the most important inning of his life, as he came in to protect a two-run lead. After retiring two of the first three hitters he faced that night, Storen appeared to be on the brink of sending the Nationals to their first NLCS in team history… until it all went wrong.
Storen proceeded to walk the next two batters to load the bases, before allowing a game-tying single to Daniel Descalso. The Cardinals then took the lead on a single by Pete Kozma, and eventually won the game by a score of 9-7. Suddenly, a magical season was over. A young team that had won 98 games in the regular season was eliminated. 45,966 heartbroken fans were sent home, wondering what might have been. And for Storen, the nightmare was only beginning.
Three months after the game five disaster, general manager Mike Rizzo signed Rafael Soriano to a two-year, $28 million contract to become the team’s new closer-stripping Storen of his hard-earned title.
“[Storen's] going to be a closer. He’s got closer stuff. He’s got a closer’s mentality. And by no means [was] the signing of Rafael Soriano based on one inning and one game at the end of the season,” Rizzo said during Soriano’s introductory press conference in January 2013.
Though Rizzo insists that the Soriano deal had nothing to do with Storen’s blown save, I don’t buy it. Storen was just one year removed from saving 43 games for the Nationals, and had just completed a strong, albeit short, 2012 campaign after recovering from offseason elbow surgery. Before that fateful night, there wasn’t a doubt in anyone’s mind that Drew Storen was the closer for now, and for the future. And yet, after one bad day, he was done.
Regardless of the motive, the Soriano signing hurt both Storen and the Nationals, as the 26-year-old right-hander struggled mightily at the beginning of the 2013 season. Storen clearly had a hard time adjusting to his new role, posting a 5.95 ERA the first three months of the season, before being demoted to the Minors on July 26. This was undoubtedly a low point for the former first round draft pick, but it was a low point that did not last very long. After a short stint with Triple-A Syracuse, Storen rejoined the big league club and allowed just three earned runs over 19 1/3 innings, while striking out 15. Storen attributed his recovery to some key mechanical tweaks he made while at Syracuse, particularly reestablishing the quick leg kick that had brought him much success earlier in his career.
“I felt like when I was doing the straight-leg, I had to worry about my arm slot,” said Storen to Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post. “When I got my twist and my leg kick back, it just allowed me to let my arm fall where it was. I think it made my arm slot more consistent, and not having to worry about it, it was so much easier. It was just, ‘Hey, lift-and-throw,’ instead of, ‘Okay, lift, get your arm up, and get on top of it.’”
Storen proved that he was back to his old self. Back to the pitcher that the Nationals envisioned when they drafted him in ’09. Back to the player he was before Game 5. It has been a year since the Nationals signed Soriano to become the new closer; the time has come to let Storen try to earn that job back.
Rizzo signed Soriano with the expectation that the ninth inning would be almost automatic every time the Nationals had a chance to win the game. Instead, Soriano had the opposite effect. Sure he finished the season with 43 saves, but the 34-year-old right-hander delivered stressful ninth innings on a regular basis and posted a career high in blown saves with six. Don’t get me wrong, Soriano was a big player for the Nationals and his saves total was very impressive, but was it really worth coughing up $28 million and crushing the confidence of a young pitcher who has the potential to become an elite closer? I don’t think so.
As impressive as Soriano’s performance was, it should not entitle him to go into Spring Training already penciled-in as the Nationals Opening Day closer. At the very least, Storen should have the chance to earn back the job that belonged to him in the first place.
With the way he finished last season, and the fact that his best years are yet to come, I think Storen would have a legitimate shot at earning the closer’s role during spring training, if given the chance. Sure, the argument can be made that Soriano will have a bounce back year in 2014, but I disagree. Soriano’s strikeout percentage dropped from 24.7% in 2012 to 18.4% in 2013, definitely not something you want for a role that lives and dies by the strikeout. Soriano’s opponents’ batting average also rose from .217 in 2012 to .250 in 2013, an indication that the 34-year-old could very well be entering his decline years.
I’m not saying that Storen should be named the closer today, because that would not be fair to Soriano either. Both players deserve the chance to battle it out in Spring Training to ensure that the best player gets the job. A competition wouldn’t only be beneficial for Storen, as it would also light a flame under Soriano that could drive him to pitch much better than he did last season.
Drew Storen had one bad night, and he served his time. He’s ready to come back strong in 2014 and hopefully have a chance to earn back the job that he deserves. He’s moved on. It’s about time the Nationals do the same.