Last year, the Tigers felt they needed one more arm to help the bullpen – they went out and got right-hander Jose Veras from the Astros, a setup man turned closer in Houston, who was expected to complement Drew Smyly, Bruce Rondon and Al Alburquerque in middle relief, setting up for Joaquin Benoit. Veras didn’t live up to expectations, but still cost the Tigers a good amount in highly-touted outfield prospect Danry Vasquez and David Paulino, a hard-throwing but raw right-hander that can often be referred to as a lottery ticket type.
The Tigers didn’t need another Veras though this time around. They needed a shutdown reliever, someone capable of replacing Joe Nathan, who has been unable to successfully fill the role the Tigers signed him to do this off-season. That sort of return would obviously mean a more expensive package in exchange.
And let’s be clear – this was not a want, this was a need. The Tigers’ bullpen holds a 4.41 ERA, good for 26th in MLB. That’d be a depressing stat, but in fact it’s been worse, with the group holding the worst ERA in baseball among relief staffs as recently as a month ago. And the trouble started at the top, with Nathan, who has a 5.89 ERA and has had a very up-and-down season.
Soria fills that huge void. While Nathan has basically been the equivalent of a replacement pitcher this season, Soria has been good for 1.7 wins according to fWAR, in just 33 1/3 innings. He’s striking out more than 11 batters per nine innings, has a 2.70 ERA (and a miniscule 1.07 FIP) while walking just four batters all year. In Tuesday’s eighth inning against the Diamondbacks, the Tigers’ bullpen combined to walk three.
For now, Nathan will remain the closer and Soria will work in middle relief. But he should become the team’s closer in the ninth inning. If that ends up being the case (and I think it's a safe bet that Nathan won't be given too many more chances if he continues to struggle), you now have Nathan to work middle relief instead, in addition to Joba Chamberlain setting up, who has been excellent for the Tigers this year with a 2.43 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning.
Further, you can now deploy guys like Ian Krol and Al Alburquerque for spot duty, tasked with getting one or two outs, rather than trying to stretch them to face hitters they’re susceptible to being hit hard by. This was a key fact that TigsTown senior analyst Neil Weinberg explored in Tuesday’s analysis on the bullpen, identifying Krol as someone who would become more effective by being utilized properly, especially focusing on left-handed hitters.
And lest we get ahead of ourselves, should the Tigers make the playoffs, left-hander Drew Smyly is a good bet to return to the bullpen as well for additional reinforcement.
Soria is currently in the second year of a two-year deal, and earns $5.5 million this season. He also has a club option for 2015 at $7 million, which the Tigers will almost assuredly pick up, making this more than just a two-month rental.
Of course, the cost is more than just the monetary impact behind it, as the Tigers forfeit two highly-regarded prospects in right-handers Corey Knebel and Jake Thompson. Knebel was ranked fourth in the organization by TigsTown, while Thompson was rated sixth. Other services may have them reversed in order, or slightly higher or lower, but the consensus is clear that both were among the best arms in the organization.
Knebel was drafted just 13 months ago, but is already on his second stint in Detroit. Drafted with the intention of making him a starter, he had the stuff and the mindset to stick in the back end of the bullpen, and rocketed up the Tigers farm system in that role. Knebel still has more development left to do though, trying to find better command of his mid-90’s fastball that can help setup his dominating breaking pitch.
Knebel could be a future closer – he’s just not one today, and probably won’t be for at least a year, if not more. If you’re in rebuilding mode, he’s the sort of arm that you love to think about the future of. When you’re trying to win this season, you don’t have the patience to wait for it.
Thompson meanwhile is a quality starting pitching prospect. He made his way up to Double-A at just 20-years old, and impressed many in the Futures Game earlier this month. He had a 3.14 ERA over 16 starts for Lakeland with 79 strikeouts in 83 innings, and allowed just three runs combined in his first two starts for Erie with seven strikeouts. But he’s primarily a sinker-slider pitcher that is still working to develop a quality third pitch, and without it, more likely faces a back-of-the-rotation future. That’s the sort of guy that you don’t like to trade because he’s likely going to be a quality big league arm, but you also can’t justify hanging onto and in turn not dramatically upgrading the bullpen.
Further and possibly most important, each trade deadline, the Tigers have a couple of prospects who they’d prefer to hang onto. This is because they’re likely to have a future with the club as soon as next season. Last year, that was Nick Castellanos, and he stayed a Tiger through the deadline, and is now a fixture at third base.
This year, there were arguably two guys that fit that mold; left-hander Robbie Ray and outfielder Steven Moya. Both play a position that the Tigers have a prominent player becoming a free agent this off-season that may not return (Max Scherzer in the rotation, Torii Hunter in the outfield). In turn, both are going to be looked upon to contribute at the MLB-level, likely in 2015.
The trade deadline of course is still more than a week away, but this move appears to be the game changer the Tigers, and their bullpen, needed. Once again, general manager Dave Dombrowski has made a big move to solidify a group sorely in need. It’s not a surprise, but the Tigers yet again paid a steep price to go all in on a run for the 2014 World Series.