The Detroit Tigers bullpen currently holds the worst batting average against at .272 and the least strikeouts of any bullpen with just 243 strikeouts. Match that with the collective 4.41 ERA, and one could argue that the Tigers own the worst bullpen of all contending teams; a huge point of contention over the past three season.
However, Dave “Clark Kent, Superman, X-factor” Dombrowski came to the rescue once more. He and the Detroit Tigers received closer Joakim Soria in their second big deal of the season with the Texas Rangers for two pitching prospects, relievers Corey Knebel and Jason Thompson, and a draft pick.
The Tigers have made the ALCS the past three seasons, with one World Series appearance in that time, but have failed to hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy in all of those seasons. A major reason for the inability to close out the season, was parallelled on a daily basis with Detroit’s inability to close a game out.
Go back to the 2012 postseason run, when Detroit played against the San Francisco Giants for a World Series title. Replace the aforementioned Veras with Jose Valverde, and still with Benoit and Albuquerque, in 11.1 innings, the three relievers game up 13 earned runs.
As bad as all of those numbers were, the 2011 postseason might have been the worst for Tigers fans. The goal is to have starters remain in as long as possible, and the less innings the bullpen has to eat up, the better for everyone.
In the tumultuous 2011 postseason run, the Detroit Tiger faithful watched Jim Leyland runout his relief pitching for 31 innings. Out of those 31 innings, there were 26 earned runs given up.
Point being, Joe Nathan is not an isolated incident. Neither is Valverde. Nor is Phil Coke, the sole reason for the bullpen problems this year (like so many diehard Tiger fans claim). The Detroit Tigers bullpen has been ailing for years, and Dombrowski has taken a major step forward in solving this problem, for now anyway.
Soria has been one of the best closers in baseball for half a decade, and he does it in a number of ways.
Keeping runners off base, check. He has a career 1.05 WHIP which is at a career best microscopic 0.87 this 2014 season.
Can he sustain success, check. His rough 2011 season included, where he had an ERA over four, Soria has a career 2.51 ERA.
Can he limit the damage, check. In what is well known as a hitter friendly ballpark in Arlington Texas, Soria did not give up a home run in 33.1 innings pitched this season. If that is not enough, Soria has a mind boggling 10.5:1 strikeout to walk ratio, and is 17 for 19 in save opportunities this year.
But how could one man save a bullpen that has been the achilles heel to a team that has a championship pedigree? Who can be sure that this second closer they acquire from Texas will be any better than the one they signed in the winter of 2013 (Nathan)? How can someone who has only played for basement dwellers (Kansas City and Texas) be ready for the high profile position of closing for a World Series favorite?
He won’t be closing; not just yet anyways.
In yet another stroke of brilliance by the Detroit Tigers front office and staff, Brad Ausmus announced after the signing of Soria that Nathan is still the closer in Detroit. Although it sounds counterintuitive to sign a closer and not to use them as the closer right away, the logic behind the decision is rather simple.
It is still July and Detroit is in first place. There is no reason to push the panic button, there is no reason to shift the whole team around just to fit one new arm in the back end, and there is no reason to immediately deem Soria the closer. One of the fantastic truths to baseball is decisions are made on the fly. What you say at the beginning of the game may not hold true by the time you get to the eighth inning, and adjustments will have to be made.
Putting this mentality on a larger scale: just because Soria is not the closer now, does not mean that he will not be a month from now. The reasoning is this: had Ausmus and Dombrowski immediately named Soria the new closer that gets under Nathan’s already soft skin, then since Joba Chamberlain is having an essentially flawless season as the set up man, Nathan would not take that position either.
That would leave $9 million worth of a jello arm sitting in the bullpen waiting until he hears his name called to Cooperstown, where he will inevitably end up.
Or there is the alternative.
Detroit leaves Nathan as the closer for now, with the understanding that his leash is shorter than a pitbull’s with rabies. If he is somehow successful, which has not happened up until this point, then he can keep the job. If not, he will fill into that limbo setup-hold role at the end of the seventh or eighth innings when Chamberlain is not available.
If Detroit looks to make that final step, and finally leave October disappointment in the rearview mirror, they are going to need their bullpen to step up. Soria is step number one. Figuring out Nathan is step two. Step three… remains to be seen.
Will Detroit look for one more arm? Will Joel Hanrahan return in time? If so, will he be effective after not pitching for over a year?
While we may not know what else is in store, one thing has remained consistent over the years; Detroit is not afraid to make a move. With Soria as move one, the Tigers are trying to emulate the Jeffersons by “movin on up” all the way to that Tiffany & Co designed crystal trophy.
Tony Garcia is the host of Tiger Talk for Impact Sports.