Just a week ago, the Atlanta Braves didn't have any surefire late-inning relief options.
Now they might have three.
It's been widely speculated that right-hander Rafael Soriano, who was offered salary arbitration by the Braves this week, will decline the offer and hit the open market as a free agent. But Soriano's agent said Saturday that the pitcher is giving serious consideration to accepting arbitration and returning to Atlanta for a one-year deal.
"It's going to go down to the wire,'' said agent Peter Greenberg. "It's definitely going to be a last-minute decision for us.''
While Braves manager Bobby Cox might welcome having Soriano back in the fold, the pitcher's return would make for a pricey bullpen in Atlanta. The Braves signed free agent relievers Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito this week at a combined guaranteed payout of $10.2 million in 2010, and appeared to be committed to Saito as the team's main eighth inning guy and Wagner at closer.
Soriano, who led the Braves with 27 saves in 2009, earned $6.35 million this season. While some industry observers think he could surpass $8 million in 2010 as a salary arbitration-eligible player, the Braves think he slots in somewhere between $6 million and $7 million because he doesn't have a proven track record as a closer. Either way, Soriano would return to Atlanta as a high-priced middle reliever or setup man.
When general manager Frank Wren offered salary arbitration to Soriano and Mike Gonzalez, the Braves assured themselves of four compensatory draft picks in the event the two relievers signed elsewhere. It's believed that Gonzalez, a Scott Boras client, will decline arbitration and explore free agency. But Soriano might go right to Monday's midnight deadline before making his decision.
Soriano, 29, has the portfolio to be a hot commodity on the open market. He has 365 strikeouts in 332 2/3 career innings with Seattle and Atlanta, and he averaged 12.13 strikeouts per nine innings in 77 appearances with the Braves in 2009.
The Yankees, Mets, Cubs, Orioles, Tigers, Red Sox and Astros are among the teams believed to have some interest in Soriano and/or Gonzalez on the open market. But Jose Valverde and Fernando Rodney are among the other closers available, and Greenberg said Soriano will take his time weighing his options.
"We know there's a lot of interest in Rafael, but we still don't have a sense yet whether [salary] arbitration or going on the free market is in his best interests,'' Greenberg said.
Wagner, 38, struck out 26 batters in 15 2/3 innings last season after his return from Tommy John surgery. The Braves signed him for a base salary of $7 million in 2010, with a $6.5 million vesting option for 2011.
Saito, 40, signed a one-year deal for a $3.2 million base salary. He posted a 2.43 ERA and struck out 52 batters in 55 2/3 innings for Boston in 2009.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com.