Jack is Back. Right?

Panic ensued earlier this season when Joakim Soria had seemingly lost all control.  His velocity was down, as was his movement.  There were concerns about an injury or even a complete meltdown.

Then, the Soria we all have come to know seemed to come back.  The fastball was back into the 90s.  After a complete implosion against the White Sox and six walks to five strikeouts in April, though, his 4.63 ERA gave pause to really believing he had returned to form.

May started with little incident.  Sure there was a blown save in New York, but to that point, Soria had put together six straight appearances without an earned run.  Then two outings later, he blew another save.  Then, in the last week of May, he gave up a two-out walkoff homer to Adam Jones in Baltimore, then suffered painful loss at Texas that could have been avoided with the aid of a Brayan Pena tag – but the save would have still been blown.  The problems reached their peak after another walkoff blown save, this time at the hands of Royal-killer Torii Hunter.

Soria was shuffled out of the closer’s role with a 6.55 ERA.

In the three weeks since, he hasn’t given up a run.  Can we finally believe?

Part of Soria’s rebound has been his control.  After spending the first two months blowing saves and allowing baserunners (he gave up a hit in every appearance in May except for one against St. Louis), he’s been almost untouchable in his nine June innings with just three hits allowed – all singles – and two walks.

The stats are fine but to watch Soria in the first two months, he looked off.  The injury concerns were understandable, especially with the wild streak early on.  After a successful (so far) June, he looks better, his pitches are sharper, he trusts his curve again and he’s regained effectiveness.

The bigger question is one that will be answered at the end of the season after Soria has a full year of work to judge.  By year’s end, he could have turned everything around and will finish with a strong, but not spectacular year.  He could regress and continue to have struggles off and on during the season.

Relief pitchers, particularly closers, have a short shelf life.  Brad Lidge was dominant with the Astros in 2004 and 2005 but gave up more hits and homers in 2006.  He regained his form but various injuries caused more problems in 2009.  His workload has dwindled year after year and he’s currently on the shelf with rotator cuff issues and a sore right elbow.

Jonathan Broxton was a strikeout machine from 2006 to the early part of 2010.  Mismanagement by Joe Torre led to regular overuse and Broxton hasn’t been the same since.

Part of Soria’s problems early may have been due to overuse.  He appeared in 12 games in April and 11 in May.  When he blew the White Sox game, he was in his fifth game in six days.  He pitched every other day during his stretch in May when he was giving up walkoffs.

Or maybe there’s just no formula to it.  Soria didn’t look the same early and wasn’t pitching with confidence.  In June, he’s been sharp.  If the edge is back, he should be fine and he’s gotten more days of rest between appearances. It could just be a rough two month stretch in an otherwise stellar career.  People might be saying “remember that time when Soria almost fell apart?”

There are advocates that Soria should be traded and at this point, he’s the most movable commodity the Royals have.  With plenty of strong options in the bullpen, the Royals could fill his closer’s role with a trade, and the Royals could fill an area of need.  Aaron Crow, Louis Coleman or Greg Holland could step in.

For me, though, I see Soria as a big piece to a contending puzzle.  The Yankees dominated with Mariano Rivera at the end of the bullpen, effectively cutting out an inning from the other team.  Soria’s been the same kind of pitcher, dominant in every year but 2011.  While Crow or Coleman or Holland could step in, they wouldn’t replace Soria’s performance.

That’s assuming that Soria will continue with the trends we’re seeing in June and he finishes the season strong.  By July, if the Royals are getting solid offers from contenders and can add a couple of arms and a catching or outfield prospect, I can’t see Dayton Moore saying no.

It hinges on Soria’s work from here on.  If the end of July comes around and he’s still floating around a 4.00 ERA, he would still have value, but the Royals would be fielding weaker offers and justifiably so.

I expect Soria to turn it around.  Maybe that’s optimistic.  Maybe it’s crazy.  On one hand he’s always been an unflappable reliever and his consistency is matched by few others over the past four-plus seasons.  I’d rather look at his entire career and give more weight to the past performance.  It’s no guarantee – again, Lidge and Broxton both fell off the map, and other relievers in the past have disappeared after a dominant season (Joaquin Benoit comes to mind).

On the other hand, Soria comes from a family of dentists and he felt that would be his calling before gaining success in baseball.  I’ve thought a few times that his problems this season may have stemmed from not having to work through struggles with few other options outside of baseball.  He has something to fall back on and is still quite young despite his experience at this level.

He’ll be given every chance to succeed until he proves that he can’t.  Even his demotion in May lasted just a week and Crow never even got a save opportunity.  Soria needed just three innings of scoreless relief to get the job back.  That’s a sign that the Royals aren’t worried (or could just be stubborn, which wouldn’t surprise anybody).

The difficulty we face as fans is how to have confidence in his ability to finish the game.  He’s had so many mishaps to this point that that automatic feeling is gone and the first batter to reach feels like a threat.  There’s worry now.  How long will it take to bring that confidence back?  Solid work through the rest of June?  Through July?  An ERA near (or better than) 3.00 at the end of the year?

And if that confidence comes back, will another blown save bring the concern right back?  We may be on a roller coaster ride the rest of the year, living and dying by Soria’s performances.  Or he’ll come back as the Mexicutioner of old, putting batters down as we’ve come to expect.

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Topics: AL Central, Baseball, Brad Lidge, Joakim Soria, Jonathan Broxton, Kansas City Royals, KC, Mariano Rivera, MLB, Royals

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