02/01/2004 1:21 PM ET
Soriano proud to represent country
Mariners reliever leading Dominican pitching staff
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- Rafael Soriano looks every bit the part of a Major Leaguer.
|"I realize the responsibility of being the starting pitcher in the first game. I will take it seriously," Rafael Soriano said. (Doug Miller/MLB.com)
As he stretched to get ready to start the Dominican Republic's first game in the 2004 Caribbean Series, his huge diamond earrings, caught the sunshine and cast a glow around the field in Estadio Quisqueya.
Brilliance is nothing new to Soriano, the Seattle Mariners' prized pitching prospect who turned 25 in December.
After finally sticking with Seattle last season, the converted outfielder had a 1.53 ERA in 53 innings over 40 relief appearances, flashing high-90s heat with an improving slider and changeup. He struck out 68 batters and walked 12 in that span.
He's been even better since the Winter League season started down here.
Although his strikeouts were down (25) and his walks were up (18), Soriano set a league record with a 0.21 ERA, allowing two earned runs in 42 1/3 innings for the Escogido Lions of the Dominican League.
Soriano was effectively drafted by the Dominican champion Licey Tigers for the sole purpose of being their ace starter in the Caribbean Series against the champions of the Venezuelan, Puerto Rican and Mexican leagues.
It's a distinction he said he was proud of.
"It's an honor to represent my country here," Soriano said. "And I realize the responsibility of being the starting pitcher in the first game. I will take it seriously."
Licey manager Manny Acta takes Soriano seriously, too.
Acta said there was no question Soriano was going to be the man on the hill in the first game of the series for a team that features big-league stars Miguel Tejada, Luis Castillo, David Ortiz and Rafael Furcal.
"He's pitching the first game so he can be available later in the Series," Acta said. "And because he's been dominant here and in the big leagues the second half about last season, he's been untouchable."
As good as he's been, however, Soriano's responsibilities for the Seattle Mariners remain undecided.
The Mariners' five-man rotation in 2003 -- Freddy Garcia, Joel Piñeiro, Jamie Moyer, Ryan Franklin and Gil Meche -- didn't have a missed start among them last year. Barring injury, it doesn't look like Soriano will crack that quintet.
Also, the bullpen is crowded. Shigetoshi Hasegawa put up great numbers as a setup man for closer Kazu Sasaki, then excelled as the M's fill-in closer when Sasaki was injured.
Soriano became a setup option last year, joining left-hander Arthur Rhodes, but the organization still envisioned a possible future starting role for him.
Rhodes left for Oakland via free agency and Sasaki quit the team to return to Japan, but the Mariners picked up Eddie Guardado, who figures to inherit the closer role after two great seasons shutting down games for the Minnesota Twins.
Soriano seems slated for a share of the setup role once again, which is something he said he doesn't have a problem with.
"I'll do whatever the team wants me to do," Soriano said. "I like pitching, so as long as I can pitch, I'll be happy. Whatever role I have, in the bullpen or starting, I have to be ready. I've shown what I can do, so it's not my decision. I don't know what they'll do in Seattle."
When asked what role he prefers, he didn't hesitate to answer.
"I like being a relief pitcher," Soriano said. "You only have to pitch a few innings, so I think it's easier."
Soriano added that he'd like to eventually become the Mariners' closer, and the club's brass doesn't seem to think that's impossible. It might not happen this year, but it could happen soon with some improvement, according to Mariners director of player development and scouting Benny Looper.
"He has been coming on since he started pitching," Looper said. "But what really stands out was the way he established himself at the big-league level last year. He got an opportunity and took advantage of it. If he can match what he did last season, we'd be happy with that.
"When he starts getting those other two pitches [slider and changeup] over the plate, he will be even tougher."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.