For four years, the Kansas City Royals couldn't count on much, but they could count on Joakim Soria in the ninth inning. Coming into 2011, Soria had pitched 255 innings in his career with a 2.01 ERA and 132 saves. While Baseball Reference doesn't keep track of blown saves, I'll guess that he had one. Maybe two. When the sun got in his eyes.
This season, though, Soria has been dreadful. His velocity is down and his curveball isn't working. It's still May, and he's already allowed more earned runs in 2011 than he did in any of the previous three seasons. His walk rate has almost doubled, and his strikeout rate has dropped.
After his fourth blown save of the year on Monday, the Royals officially demoted Soria.
This is bad news for the Royals on a couple of fronts. One: Soria seems broken. Two: His replacement will be Aaron Crow, a live-armed starting pitcher who was put in the bullpen out of spring partly out of necessity, partly out of a desire to ease him into the majors Earl Weaver-style. Crow has done well as a middle reliever, but if he does well as a closer, he'll probably stay a closer forever.
Jonathan Papelbon and Neftali Feliz -- plus Soria himself -- are two examples of starting prospects who went to the bullpen and didn't come out. Both have done well, and it's not as if their teams regret the moves. But it always seems like a bit of a waste to never find out if a guy can make it as a starter. Once a pitcher gets a few saves, it's almost impossible for a team to switch them back. They're the vampires of baseball -- completely irreversible after the initial transformation. If Aaron Crow succeeds as a closer, the Royals might win fewer games in 2012 or 2013 than if he were starting.
Or heck, maybe he'll be better than Soria ever was, and the Royals will have a better team, especially if Soria finds what he's lost. For the foreseeable future, though, the ninth inning belongs to Aaron Crow. Three months ago, there was only one constant on the Royals' roster -- that's how quickly a dominant reliever can lose his way. Scary stuff.