We all know that 2011 was not a vintage Joakim Soria campaign.   He blew seven saves, one more than in the two previous seasons combined.   Soria surrendered two runs or more in seven different outings in 2011:  again one more than in the two previous seasons combined.   Strikeouts were down, walks were up and home runs (1.04/9) were dramatically higher than at any time in his career.  To be fair, a home run rate that was nearly double his previous career average means that Soria gave up two more home runs than in 2008 or 2009, so let’s not read just a whole lot into that number.

 In a season that spawned high hopes for many players and saw several maligned acquisitions come through as only Dayton Moore could have imagined, Soria was one of the few dark clouds (which is kind of a funny thing to say when discussing a team that lost 90+ games…again).     The Royals’ closer’s issues were discussed by our own Craig Brown and by Jeff Zimmerman just a few weeks ago. 

Truth is, Joakim Soria had a very similar year to 2011 back in 2008.  Then, however, aided by an unsustainable .207 BABIP, Soria saved 42 games and sported a 1.60 ERA (against a 3.62 xFIP).  Fast forward to 2011, change the BABIP to .312 and you have the worst season of Joakim’s career.   Again, though, his xFIP was actually lower than in 2008 (3.38).   With a little luck and a couple less home runs and Royals fans might not have had discussion after discussion regarding their closer.

That said, as both Craig and Jeff document in the links supplied above, things were different.   Soria was throwing a cutter, especially early in the year and it simply was not an effective pitch.  Given that the cutter became Soria’s weapon of choice in lieu of his curveball from the middle of 2010 through the first half of 2011 and given how poor a pitch that cutter turned out to be, the answer to Soria’s problems might be that simple.   Ditch the cutter, give the curve another try and get back to being the Soria of old.

Of course, that is easier said than done.  The curve was a horrible pitch for Soria in 2010.  He could not throw it for strikes and could not get the swing and miss when he did.   It was actually better in 2011, but by then Joakim had moved onto the cutter and was throwing the curve half as often as he had in past years.

It is odd, but for a guy who was among the best closers in the game for three straight seasons, Soria spent much of 2011 lost; searching for answers when he probably did not need to be asking any questions in the first place.   It happens:  the classic ‘outhink yourself’ maneuver.

The burning question, of course, is was 2011 just a dip in the road or the start of a career implosion.  Baseball has seen its share of closers seemingly overnight go from dominant to awful.   Any of us who lived through the Mark Davis nightmare can attest to that.   To that end, Soria was not consistently awful in 2011.   He had stretches of outstanding effectiveness interspersed with gut wrenching implosions, so there is a lot of evidence that Soria might well be dominant once again in 2012.

Thus we come to the burning question of the off-season:  to trade Soria or not to trade Soria? 

The contract has progressed from great to merely good and is no longer the bargaining chip it used to be.   The Royals have Soria under control through the 2014 season and a vintage Soria, no matter how good Greg Holland is, looks awfully good finishing out important games in 2013 and 2014.   Provided, of course, that the Royals HAVE the vintage version of Soria those two years and not a deteriorating shell of that guy.

Let’s be clear, you are not getting an established number two starter in exchange for Joakim Soria:  there is no precedent that should make anyone think any team gives that up for a closer.   The Royals might get some organization’s version of Mike Montgomery in return, but not two of those (as Dayton Moore reportedly asked the Yankees for at some point).  That’s your return, so start there if you want to debate whether the prudent move is to trade Soria.

That statement comes off as a ‘don’t trade Soria’ argument and I am not really in that camp.  I think there is a 20% chance that Joakim Soria’s days as an elite closer are over, so there is a risk going into 2012.   The argument that a closer is an uneccesary luxury on a non-contending team holds water and likely will apply to the Royals in 2012, but hopefully not after that.

Do you leverage the risk that Soria’s value might continue to decline against the risk that a prospect you trade for washes out?   The downside for the Royals is trading Soria, who remains effective for his new team, for a player or players who do not help Kansas City win in 2013 or 2014 and find yourself a closer away from the playoffs through the bulk of Eric Hosmer’s run with the Royals.

In my opinion, the Royals should stick with Soria, at least through July:  hoping he returns to dominant form and is either helping Kansas City stay in contention or jumping his trade value to a higher level.    There are a lot of teams that expect to contend that have less than solid closer situations right now.   Come July, if Greg Holland is still lights out and the Royals are not in the race, maybe then you pull the trigger and get more than a prospect, however good, in return.

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