Joakim Soria has struggled this year, and while he is not solely to blame for the Royals missing out on the playoffs, he has been a big part of it. The Royals have the 32-year old reliever signed for two more seasons, with $18 million owed on the deal. The 2017 season looms large for the Royals, since it may be the last window of opportunity to win a championship before most of the team becomes eligible for free agency. So it is crucial that the Royals put forth the best team they can to maximize their potential.
So what do you with Joakim Soria next season? Let’s go through the options.
Send him to the minor leagues
Yea, this is never going to happen since Dayton Moore just signed Joakim Soria to a multi-year deal less than a year ago. But is it even possible?
Soria technically has option years remaining, but since he has at least three years of Major League service time, he can refuse his optional assignment to the minor leagues. If that happens, the Royals must either add him back to the roster, trade him, or release him, with the Royals paying the remainder of his guaranteed contract. Soria could also elect free agency, but if he does that, he forfeits his salary. So it is pretty much a guarantee you will not see Joakim Soria pitching in an Omaha uniform.
Well, if the Royals optioned him and he refused and they had to release him, would that be so bad? The Royals have released players owed millions on long-term deals before. Jeff Francoeur was released in 2013 with a few months left and a few million dollars owed. Most notably, Omar Infante was released earlier this year with a year and a half and about $12 million left on his deal. Would the Royals eat that much money to be rid of Joakim Soria?
It seems very unlikely. First of all, Soria hasn’t been that bad. Francoeur and Infante were among the worst position players in baseball when they were let go, with negative value. Joakim Soria is nowhere near the worst reliever in baseball if you go by ERA, FIP, or fWAR. His 4.12 ERA is just a bit worse than the league average of 3.91 for an American League relief pitcher. The Royals need seven arms in that bullpen, and as much as Soria has struggled, he is one of the seven best relievers they have. You certainly don't want to use Brooks Pounders over Joakim Soria.
Releasing Soria does not save the Royals any money - it seems unlikely any team would claim his contract off waivers, and if he clears waivers, the Royals are on the hook for his salary, even if he is not on the team. Teams don’t just pay useful players millions of dollars to play for someone else. Until the Royals have a lot more options that are clearly better, Soria will not be cut loose for nothing.
It seems possible the Royals could trade Soria, although his value is pretty low right now. The Royals would certainly not expect anything of value in return for Soria, and they would only net a minor leaguer or two if they are willing to agree to pay most of his salary, which, historically, they have been very reluctant to do.
The Royals could potentially swap him for someone else’s bad contract, giving a change of scenery that might be beneficial to both players. For example, the Baltimore Orioles owe Ubaldo Jimenez $13.5 million next year and would probably be willing to see him leave town in exchange for a useful reliever like Soria to save them some money in 2017, although it would cost them more money long-term (perhaps the Royals could throw in some money to even it out). Jimenez has been awful in 2016, but was a 2.5 rWAR pitcher in 2015, is only 32, and for a starting pitching-starved organization like the Royals, could be a decent gamble to bounce back. The complication for the Royals is that they may be up against their budget for 2017, with more room financially in 2018, so such a trade may be hard to work out.
Try him as a starter
Fans called for the Royals to try Soria as a starter early on in his career, with management replying with the adage "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it." Well, Joakim Soria looks broke now. Soria’s numbers overall aren’t terrible, but his failures get amplified in high leverage, late-game situations, where he has been historically awful. The Royals simply do not have any margin for error in those situations.
But if Soria started the game and gave up a few runs, well that is far more tenable as a starting pitcher. Soria last started a game professionally in 2006, in the Mexican League, where he once threw a perfect game. But that was a long time ago. Could Soria transition back to starting a decade later?
It is not unprecedented. Braden Looper was a reliever for eight seasons before he made his first Major League start for the Cardinals, winning 38 games over three seasons as a starter. Derek Lowe was primarily a reliever his first five seasons before converting to starting full time at age 29. Kenny Rogers and C.J. Wilson also converted from reliever to starters, although they were under 30 when they made the transition. Soria even has incentives built into his contract if he becomes a starting pitcher.
Soria's IP and GS incentives in contract reflects real interest in starting again #royals— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) December 7, 2015
Would Soria’s stuff play as a starting pitcher? His command has been an issue as a reliever this year, and that would likely be worse as a starter. Typically pitchers see their ERA go up as they transition from reliever to starter, and Soria’s 4.12 ERA is already fairly high. Still, the Royals are starved for staring pitching, and desperate times call for desperate actions.
Keep him as a reliever, but in low leverage situations
This seems like the most likely scenario, with Soria building his confidence back up in games that aren’t particularly close, or at least earlier in games. The Royals have done this to protect relievers who became less effective, such as Aaron Crow, but also for relievers coming off injury, like Luke Hochevar. Eventually, if Soria proves he can bounce back to his previous level of performance, they could earn his way back into higher leverage situations. But the Royals will still likely need relief innings for 8-1 games or games in which they’re losing, or they could even use Soria as the "sixth inning guy" in close games.
Convince him to retire and open an antiquarian bookstore
Joakim Soria has earned nearly $30 million in his Major League career. Who needs the consternation and stress of a relief role with the Kansas City Royals? Why not turn to his lifelong passion of reading and open that antiquarian bookstore he has always talked about? Let's not forget that Gil Meche retired, leaving $11 million on the table. Joakim Soria could immediately redeem himself in the eyes of Royals fans by walking away from the game, saving the club $18 million over the next two years, and making available hard-to-find copies of James Fenimore Cooper's first edition of The Pioneers.