It looks like the Washington Nationals will have to look elsewhere to bolster their bullpen, as Grant Balfour reportedly agreed to a two-year, $12 million deal with the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday afternoon.
Source: #Rays signing Balfour.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 23, 2014
Balfour had previously agreed to a similar deal with the Baltimore Orioles (two-years, $15 million), but that deal fell apart due to concerns with Balfour’s physical. Clearly, the Rays are not quite as concerned with the 36-year-old right-hander’s health, and he will enter the season as their closer.
The news comes as a surprise to many Nationals fans as the Nationals were heavily rumored to be close to signing Balfour just a few days ago. In fact, the team appeared to be so interested in signing the right-hander that they were very much willing to trade Drew Storen to open a spot for him in the bullpen.
— Chris Cotillo (@ChrisCotillo) January 19, 2014
The Nationals no longer see Storen as their closer of the future and Rafael Soriano had a down year in 2013, so signing Balfour would’ve made a lot of sense for the Nationals. In an interview with MLB Network’s ‘Hot Stove’ on Tuesday, general manager Mike Rizzo hinted that the Nationals were looking into adding a top of the line reliever, just as they did with Soriano last January.
”At this time of year, we look at any way to improve our club,” Rizzo said. “We feel our bullpen is extremely strong, but if you can strengthen a strength, that never hurts either. You can never have too many good players. You can never have too many good arms, good relievers. Leave no stone unturned.”
Balfour certainly appeared to be headed to the Nationals, but as is always the case in baseball: things change. Balfour will be pitching for the Rays, and the Nationals will need a Plan B if they want to strengthen their bullpen. Will the Nationals go after someone else? Not necessarily.
The Rays’ signing of Balfour essentially put an end to the Storen trade talk, and the young right-hander may have a chance to close some games for the Nationals in 2014.
Soriano’s contract includes a $15 million option for the 2015 season that will only vest if he finishes 62 games for the Nationals in 2014. Given Soriano’s shaky first season and lofty price tag, it’s safe to say that Rizzo does not want Soriano to finish those 62 games. This was also a reason why the Nationals were interested in Balfour.
With Storen staying put, he will likely get his fair share of save opportunities in 2014, ensuring that Soriano does not reach the 62 game mark. This could be a huge opportunity for the 26-year-old Storen to reassert himself as a closer and possibly put him in the running to replace Soriano in 2015.
Though it appears as though the Nationals’ bullpen will remain intact entering Spring Training, that can change in a heartbeat. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Mike Rizzo since he took over as general manager in 2009, it’s that he’s always on the lookout for a potential deal to improve the team. The Nationals may very well end up trading Drew Storen before the season if the right deal presents itself. Fortunately for Storen, at least for now, he’s staying put for what may be the most important season of his young career.
Nationals fans may be disappointed to hear that the Nationals were unable to sign Balfour, but the fact that the Rays signed him also has its benefits for the team. For one, Balfour did not sign with the Mets (who were also front-runners to land the right-hander), meaning that they will not have to face him 16 times a year. Missing out on Balfour also gives Drew Storen a legitimate opportunity to prove that he still has what it takes to be an elite closer, just as he was in 2011 for the Nationals.
Of course, this could all change. The Balfour rumors came out of nowhere and there’s always the chance that another name will come up on the Nationals’ radar in the same fashion. With Mike Rizzo in charge, the offseason is never over.