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On Dec. 7 Joakim Soria awoke at 6 a.m. in a Culiac�n, Mexico, hotel room to the sound of his vibrating cellphone. Royals G.M. Dayton Moore was calling to tell the 22-year-old righthander that Kansas City had acquired him with the second pick of the Rule 5 draft, in which prospects not protected on other teams' 40-man rosters can be obtained for $50,000. (A player selected must spend the entire year in the majors; if he's sent down or cut, his former club can reclaim him for $25,000.) "The first thing I did was call my agent and ask, 'Who is this Dayton Moore?'" says Soria, who was pitching in the Mexican Winter League. "I lived in Mexico all my life, and I didn't know much about major league baseball—and I really didn't know much about the Kansas City Royals."
Of the record 13 Rule 5 players on this year's Opening Day rosters, outfielder Josh Hamilton, a recovering drug addict, has made the biggest splash: Picked third by the Cubs and then dealt to the Reds, he had eight home runs and a .671 slugging percentage through Sunday. But Soria, who was signed by the Dodgers in 2001 and had thrown a combined 16 2/3 innings in Class A and rookie-league ball before this season, has already emerged as a top reliever: At week's end he had five saves with a 3.07 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 14 2/3 innings. "We'd never heard of the guy," says Tigers centerfielder Curtis Granderson, "and he came out and shut us down two straight days. Guys walked back to the dugout saying, 'Where'd he come from?'"
The Royals became interested in Soria in November, when scout Louie Medina watched him baffle Mexican League hitters with two pitches—a 93-mph fastball with late movement and a fluttering change-up—that he spotted with a pointillist's precision. Medina raced back to his hotel room to get more info on Soria only to learn that he was the property of the Padres, who had bought his contract from the Mexico City Red Devils in 2005 and then lent him back to the team in '06.
But later that month San Diego left Soria off its 40-man roster. "We liked him a lot, but I thought we could sneak him through," says G.M. Kevin Towers. "[Padres director of international scouting] Randy Smith was begging me to keep him. I guess I should have listened to him."
Two days after K.C. drafted him, Soria tossed the third perfect game in Mexican Pacific League history, capping a season in which he went 9--1 with a 2.41 ERA and struck out 79 in 78 1/3 innings. He impressed in spring training, and when closer Octavio Dotel went down with a strained left oblique muscle in the first week, Soria took over the role. On April 10, in his first save opportunity, he retired Blue Jays sluggers Vernon Wells, Frank Thomas and Troy Glaus in order. After the game, Moore e-mailed Royals manager Buddy Bell, "We've found our Papelbon"—a reference to Jonathan Papelbon, the Red Sox' 26-year-old All-Star stopper.
A little over the top, perhaps, but like Papelbon, Soria is versatile: Since 2005 he has started, closed and pitched in long relief. The Royals, though, haven't decided how they'll use him when Dotel returns this month. "He's still a developing pitcher," says Moore. "We're not going to rush him into anything."
Soria is clear about his preference. "I want to be a starter," he says. That was his dream growing up in Monclova, a steel-mill town in northern Mexico where he lived next to a large field. "My parents wanted to make the field into something for the neighborhood, but they couldn't decide if for [soccer] or baseball," says Soria, whose father is a middle-school math teacher. "When I was six, they made it a baseball field, so I played baseball. Maybe it's destiny—just like the Rule 5."
For SI's dream-rotation survey, points were awarded on a 5-4-3-2-1 basis. First-place votes are in parentheses. Stats are through Sunday.