The Detroit Tigers were going to add a reliever to their bullpen. There wasn’t a question of whether or not they’d do, but rather who general manager Dave Dombrowski would pick up before the July 31 trade deadline.
Dombrowski got his man on Wednesday, acquiring Joakim Soria from the Rangers. The price was a steep one, as the Tigers gave up two of their top prospects — Double-A starter Jake Thompson and Triple-A reliever Corey Knebel — for some desperately needed relief help. But that was the going rate for a closer-caliber reliever, as established last week when the Angels sent four prospects to the Padres for Huston Street.
Soria, 30, has been exceptional for the Rangers this season, one of the few standouts on a disappointing team. He’s converted 17 of 19 save opportunities, with one of those blown saves coming in his final appearance for Texas in Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to the Yankees. In addition to a 2.70 ERA, Soria has 42 strikeouts in 33.1 innings with only four walks. Those totals comprise the second-best strikeout rate (11.3 per nine innings) of his career and easily the best walk rate (1.1 per nine) of his seven major league seasons.
The right-hander becomes the best reliever in the Tigers bullpen (though Joba Chamberlain has a better ERA at 2.41). As a unit, Detroit’s relief corps has a 4.37 ERA, fifth-worst in the majors. The Tigers’ .271 opponents’ batting average is the second-worst among MLB bullpens, while only two other clubs have allowed an opposing OPS worse than Detroit’s .751 mark.
Worst of all has been closer Joe Nathan, who the Tigers signed to a two-year, $20 million deal, hoping he’d settle a ninth-inning issue that’s been a problem going back to the 2012 postseason.
The 39-year-old veteran has been anything but dependable, compiling a 5.89 ERA while allowing 40 hits in 36.2 innings. His strikeout rate of 9.6 batters per nine innings is a more than respectable number, yet it’s the lowest of his past three seasons. Additionally, Nathan’s walking nearly four batters per nine frames, his worst rate since he became a full-time closer in 2004 with the Twins. Oh, and his average fastball velocity (91.7 mph) is the lowest of his career.
Does this mean Soria will replace Nathan as the Tigers’ closer? No — at least not yet.
Nathan has actually pitched relatively well in July, compiling a 3.86 ERA with nine strikeouts and three walks in seven innings. He had one truly bad outing, allowing three runs, two walks and two hits in one inning versus the Indians on July 19. But in his other six appearances this month, Nathan hasn’t allowed a run, giving up four hits and one walk in six innings.
But Detroit now has a safety net if Nathan continues to be unreliable. Soria will be the Tigers’ setup man in front of Nathan for now, as he was in Texas last year. That presumably gives the bullpen a strong late-inning trio of Chamberlain, Soria and Nathan. However, manager Brad Ausmus also has more flexibility at the end of games. If Nathan is struggling, Soria can take over as closer. Or if Nathan just needs a day off, their newest reliever can give him a break.
Dombrowski might not be done adding relievers either. According to rumors, the Tigers were hoping to land two relievers in one deal. Why left-hander Neal Cotts wasn’t packaged with Soria is a bit of a mystery, though perhaps Texas GM Jon Daniels wanted more than Detroit was willing to exchange. Or perhaps Dombrowski thinks he can get that other left-hander elsewhere.
Thompson, a 2012 second-round pick, was ranked by Baseball America as Detroit’s No. 5 prospect. This year, the right-hander posted a 6-4 record and 3.14 ERA with 79 strikeouts in 83 innings, recently earning a promotion to Double-A Erie. Ask those familiar with Tigers prospects, and Thompson was the player they hated to give up in this deal.
Knebel, Detroit’s first-rounder last year, was viewed as a prospect who would move through the minors fast and contribute to the major league bullpen this season. Knebel has indeed pitched in Detroit this year, but his fastball command and development of secondary pitches kept him from sticking around. Between Double-A and Triple-A, he’s struck out 43 batters in 33.1 innings.
That’s the going rate for a reliever who’s been successful this season and signed to a club option for next year at a $7 million salary below current market value for a top closer. (The Tigers will almost certainly pick up that option, considering what they had to give up for Soria, though can buy him out for $500,000 if he turns out to be a disappointment.)
Yet despite paying a high price for Soria, the Tigers still have several prospects that could be dealt for another reliever. Dombrowski may be hesitant to trade Single-A pitcher Jonathon Crawford after dealing Thompson away, but would probably include him in a deal if necessary. Detroit also has several promising middle infielders, including Double-A second baseman Devon Travis and Triple-A shortstop Hernan Perez. Even Single-A shortstop Willie Adames is likely in play, though the Tigers would prefer not to lose him.
With relievers such as the Phillies’ Antonio Bastardo, the Padres’ Joaquin Benoit, the Astros’ Chad Qualls, Koji Uehara of the Red Sox and the Marlins’ Steve Cishek presumably available, Detroit could make one other move for its bullpen during the next week. (The guess here is that Dombrowski isn’t interested in Jonathan Papelbon, because of his salary and the bullpen already having two experienced closers for next season.) Don’t assume the Tigers are done yet.