Rays obtain reliever Soriano from Braves

The Tampa Bay Rays completed a trade with the Atlanta Braves on

Friday, acquiring right-handed pitcher Rafael Soriano and agreeing

to a $7.25 million, one-year contract with the reliever.

The deal sent right-hander Jesse Chavez to the Braves, who

weren’t willing to give Soriano a long-term contract and recently

signed free agent relievers Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito.

The Rays were searching for bullpen help after the lack of a

proven closer contributed to the 2008 AL champions not failing to

reach the playoffs. With several pitchers sharing the role, Tampa

Bay wound up with 22 blown saves – eighth most in the major

leagues.

Soriano had a career-best 27 saves in 31 opportunities for the

Braves. In 75 2-3 innings, he struck out 102 while walking 27.

“We had our eyes on different guys, but I don’t think any that

make us feel as confident about our bullpen heading into the season

as we do now,” said Andrew Friedman, the Rays’ executive vice

president of baseball operations.

The last thing Friedman expected when he headed to this week’s

winter meetings was to get a reliever who’ll cost the

budget-conscious Rays so much money. But when he learned Soriano

had accepted an offer of arbitration from the Braves, Friedman

huddled with team officials and received permission from principal

owner Stuart Sternberg to pursue a deal.

“I chose salary arbitration because they had showed interest in

keeping me. Then they said I was too expensive and that I wasn’t

going to be their closer,” Soriano said from the Dominican

Republic.

“Either way I think everything turned out the way it was

supposed to and I’m happy to be part of Tampa Bay’s team now. … I

had been speaking to my agent and preparing mentally for whatever

may happen and wherever I may end up.”

Soriano, who turns 30 on Dec. 19, ranked second among major

league relievers in strikeouts and held opponents to a .194 batting

average last season – 12th lowest in the National League. In eight

seasons with the Braves and Seattle Mariners, he’s 8-18 with a 2.92

ERA and 43 saves.

“Last week, at this time, Stu said there wouldn’t be a $7

million closer. Today, there’s a $7 million closer. Markets

change,” Rays president Matt Silverman said.

“This isn’t about a modest improvement in a place where we had

depth. It’s a real need. It’s a luxury that other teams can afford.

It’s something, while we can’t necessarily afford it all the time,

we’re going to enjoy having someone like him.”

Barring any moves that trim salary, the Rays could go to spring

training with a payroll approaching $70 million. Less than two

weeks ago, Friedman said he wanted to shore up the bullpen but

doubted the club would enter next season with an established

closer.

The Rays felt Soriano was their shot to bolster their chances of

narrowing the gap between themselves and the big-spending New York

Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the AL East.

Even if it means possible payroll reductions down the road.

“We made this move with the mind that if the season started

tomorrow that we feel really good about this team and feel like –

at least on paper, in the middle of December – it’s the best team

we’ve had,” Friedman said.

“Obviously it doesn’t guarantee anything, especially in this

division, but we feel really good about our bullpen in terms of it

being a strength.”

The Braves receive Chavez, who came to the Rays last month in a

deal involving second baseman Akinori Iwamura. The 26-year-old

reliever was 1-4 with a 4.01 ERA in a major league rookie-high 73

appearances for the Pirates last season.