Tigers Acquire Joakim Soria At A “No Holds Barred” Price
In the end it will be judged simply. Was Detroit’s bullpen situation so dire that it would have prevented a post-season run in 2014? Or was their club strong enough that a cheaper patch would have fixed the issue adequately? Did they recklessly use a hand grenade to shoo away a problem housefly when they targeted the best reliever on the market and paid a luxury price to get him?
The Detroit Tigers decided to jump into the deep end of the trade deadline pool on Wednesday night by sending two of their best pitching prospects to the Texas Rangers to get veteran reliever Joakim Soria. The Tigers bullpen has been the source of high anxiety for more than two seasons in Detroit and matters hadn’t really settled down in 2014. A major move had been speculated about for weeks and came to fruition after the Tigers 11-5 victory in Arizona.
Texas has to be pleased to put the “seller’s hat” on and score such a nice haul for Soria. The Rangers will receive two young pitchers with deep ties to the Longhorn State. 2012 2nd round draft pick Jake Thompson from Rockwall, TX will head to the Rangers organization to headline the deal. Thompson dominated High-A competition in the minors this season and recently was promoted to Double-A Erie where he quickly posted two very solid starts at the higher level. Expect Thompson to be in the Rangers rotation no later than mid-Summer of 2015.
Also going home will be right-handed reliever Cory Knebel. Knebel was the Closer for the Texas Longhorns before being drafted in the Supplemental First Round by the Tigers in 2013. He rose quickly through the Tigers farm system and surfaced in Detroit this Spring as the second player from his MLB draft class to make it to the majors. Knebel had yet to really settle in to Detroit’s bullpen situation, but the raves about his live fastball and hammer curve are out there and most feel he has the ceiling of a very solid big league Closer in time.
For many observers of the Tigers, the dire bullpen situation was put on full display during Tuesday night’s loss in Arizona when a depleted Tigers’ bullpen coughed up an 8th inning lead. Three walks from Phil Coke and Al Alburquerque plus a horribly located 0-2 pitch for the go ahead single from the arm of Ian Krol sadly enabled the Tigers to answer the Diamondbacks blown save in the top of the frame.
Soria adds much needed depth for Detroit’s bullpen crew. Only Joba Chamberlain has exceeded true expectations this year among the group that was in Detroit on Opening Day. Big ticket free agent Joe Nathan has struggled mightily at times throughout the first half. Alburquerque has been adequate at best despite a solid K/BB ratio. Coke has genuinely terrified even the most rock-ribbed of Tigers fans. The rest of the bullpen has been a mish-mosh of hope-and-a-prayer types like Evan Reed and Justin Miller.
Soria has been putting on quite a solid show during the Rangers’ lost season making himself a very valuable trade commodity. Having lost all of the 2012 season due to Tommy John Surgery as a member of the Kansas City Royals. Soria fled KC for Texas where he slowly worked his way back in 2013 posting a 3.80 ERA in 26 appearances out of the Rangers’ bullpen. When Nathan left Texas via free agency (deliciously as matters will now play out with Soria’s arrival in Nathan’s bullpen once again) to Detroit this past off-season, Soria assumed the Closer’s role and has once again regained his space as a premier 9th inning presence. Soria sports a 2.70 ERA with a microscopic FIP of 1.07. There is no doubt the advanced metrics love Soria. He’s striking out 31.6% of batters while walking merely 3.0%.
The Tigers had one of the worst bullpen situations in baseball despite a comfortable lead in the AL Central. Each night was it’s own mini-drama and Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski is looking to make rookie manager Brad Ausmus’ stomach settle down as he lives through the travails of figuring out his relief options each night. There is no question that Soria improves the outlook in Detroit as far as quality relief goes. There is continuing speculation the Tigers will continue to hunt for another arm from the port side as well such as Philadelphia’s Antonio Bastardo.
But was this deal worth it? Should Detroit have been so desperate for bullpen help that they gave up arguably their two top pitching prospects? Soria does come with a very affordable club option for 2015…so he’s not a strict rental. Detroit can elect to bring him back. That helps obviously. However in 2014, Soria is going to pitch in roughly 25 games for the remainder of this season should he remain healthy. The Tigers will then hope he gets to pitch in 6 to 10 playoff games as well. With a 6.5 game division lead over the Cleveland Indians, the Tigers haven’t exactly been torpedoed by their bullpen woes. How many games will Soria be worth in the standings in 2014? How many playoff victories can he be a decisive factor in? It’s not as though Soria will be adding 25 good outings to replace 25 bad ones. He will likely have a few rough outings. The pitchers he’ll take the place of wouldn’t have blown all of their appearances. Really the Tigers might be gaining 3 to 6 “good” outings from one relief slot in their bullpen. Hopefully a couple of more in the post-season. Is that enough to warrant what they just spent? It seems pretty steep…if not a gross overpay. If Soria can truly be the piece that puts the Tigers over the top, that’s wonderful. But how often is a short reliever really “that guy”? The one who separates the contender from the pretender.
There were other relief options on the market. Many, if not most, would not have cost the Tigers their two top young arms. They decided to pay full price to get their fancy Range Rover of a reliever. Would they have been nearly as well off paying for a Prius? This move is really Dombrowski swinging a hammer and going for it in 2014. Long term organizational charts were shuttled off to the side here.
Detroit has built a contender based on solid starting pitching and a lineup built around three All-Star bats and several other contributors. They were carrying the bullpen to this point with only a month long 9-20 stretch marring an otherwise successful campaign. Evidently Dombrowski sees this club as a contender for a title and he’s leaving no stone unturned to gain a spot in the World Series. Soria is a Tiger, cost be damned.
What role will the Tigers task Soria to tackle? Nathan, despite his struggles, is still the Closer. Will Soria eventually usurp his role in the 9th? If so, how will Nathan deal with that and what role would he assume successfully? The drama will not be a soap opera if both perform well…but a few more rocky outings from Nathan will strike up the syrupy opening music from “The Guiding Light” my grandma used to listen to.
The Rangers made a decisive move that the Royals failed to do in 2011 when Soria was their property. The Royals dithered in dealing for Soria when he was at the peak of his value. A mediocre 4th place team doesn’t need a premium Closer. They can finish 4th with anybody. But they didn’t want to appear as giving up to their fans and dismissed some rumored big offers for Soria. Then he got hurt. Then he left. The Royals were left holding an Air Burger instead of a Big Mac.
The Rangers avoided this mistake. They were looking up at three teams in their division standings. Reality set it. They sold Soria. This helps them retrench their organization for a quick turnaround. Thompson could assume a spot in the rotation next season and be under team control for six-seasons at cheap MLB rates. Knebel should be an equally inexpensive bullpen stalwart over roughly the same period of time. For the cost of merely a relief pitcher, even one as esteemed in the industry as Soria, this is a very nice return. Rangers GM Jon Daniels goes to bed happy after this deal.
Who “wins” the deal? You can’t say now. Both teams receive what they felt they needed. From this view the Tigers paid a premium price, if not an exorbitant one. A relief pitcher can only bring home wins that are brought to him. The offense needs to score runs and the starting pitcher has to get the game into the late innings…only then does the late inning reliever play a decisive role (if the game isn’t a blowout). This might be a “feel good” trade for the Tigers and their fans…but will the short term afterglow of the deal be eventually fed to realities that a relief pitcher only occasionally determines a championship contender’s ultimate fate.
We shall see…and it should be fun.