The Art Of Pitching–Detroit Tigers Need Another Bullpen Arm


Prior to Wednesday’s acquisition of reliever Joakim Soria from the Texas Rangers, the following question could have been asked:

Question: What do the Venus de Milo and the Detroit Tiger bullpen have in common?

Answer: Both could benefit from a couple of rock-solid arms.

In adding Soria, the Tigers are halfway there.

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The 30 year-old Mexican began his major league career in 2007 with the Kansas City Royals and spent five successful years as their closer. He is thus well-known to the Tigers.

Following a year off in 2012 due to Tommy John surgery (his second), Soria pitched sparingly in 2013 after signing with Texas. In 26 games, he carved out a higher-than-usual ERA (3.80) and WHIP (1.35) while serving exclusively as Joe Nathan‘s set-up man.

After Texas let Joe Nathan walk in the offseason, Soria was anointed as their closer and immediately picked up where he had left off in Kansas City. His ERA this year is a stingy 2.70, and he has a tidy WHIP of 0.87. He has held hitters to a batting average of .198, while converting 17 of 19 save opportunities.

In short, vintage Soria.

His overall career MLB stats include an ERA of 2.51, a WHIP of 1.05, and 177 saves in 199 opportunities (89% save percentage).

As for his style of pitching, Soria should not be mistaken for a power arm. As evidenced by a low walk rate (2.61/9 innings), he leans more toward finesse and the art of pitching.

He relies upon a four-seam fastball, which averages about 91 mph and is thrown on two of every three pitches. He also nicely commands a trio of offspeed pitches–a change-up, slider, and curve.

Despite his relatively modest velocity, Soria’s career strikeout rate is a healthy 10.0/9 innings, which speaks volumes about the placement and deception of his repertoire.

As for the Rangers’ booty from the transaction, reliever Corey Knebel is highly regarded and possesses the make-up of a future closer. He has a mid-90’s fastball along with a devastating curve.

Impressively, he was the second member of the 2013 draft class to crack the major leagues, and though he’ll need further refinement, he has the upside of a lock-down closer.

Thompson is a mere babe at age 20, though it stretches credulity to call the 6’4″, 235 pound Texas native a “babe.”

He sits in the low-90’s with his fastball and mixes in a decent slider. Of course at his age he still needs to develop, but his recent performance at AA Erie suggests he may not be too far away from the major leagues. Most scouts project him to be at least a mid-rotation innings-eater at the big league level.

So in shipping prospects Knebel and Thompson to Texas for one and a half years of Soria, did the Tigers overpay?

The answer, at least from this perch, is an unequivocal “yes.”

Personally, I would not have made the trade.

This was a classic “now versus later” scenario, and the Tigers grabbed the “now.” I understand the reasons, but take a moment to think about two or three or seven years down the road and how the trade will look at that point if either Knebel or Thompson (or both!) becomes a solid major leaguer.

This deal clearly has the potential to haunt the Tigers for the next decade or longer, as it has stripped two talented young pitchers from a minor league system that was not overly endowed with talent to begin with.

Conversely, if Soria helps this team to a World Series title in the next two years (and that’s the implicit bet), the trade will be vindicated.

Anything short of that, well………

But that’s the cost of doing business in late July, when the intoxicating scent of postseason glory begins to waft through the front offices of legitimate contenders such as the Tigers.

It’s also the legacy of the Tigers’ perpetual failure to solve their bullpen issues in the offseason, the most recent of which was no exception.

In defense of the front office it must be said, though, that they made a concerted effort to “fix the mix” by signing the top closer on the market, Joe Nathan, while adding Joba Chamberlain and Ian Krol to the staff.

Nathan has been much maligned for his unexpected 2014 swan dive, but remember his November signing was roundly applauded by Tiger followers.

General manager Dave Dombrowski must also be given credit for reeling in Chamberlain, without whom one shudders to think where this season would stand.

Additionally, though the left-handed youngster Ian Krol has underwhelmed, the major blow to the bullpen occurred during spring training with the Tommy John surgery of fireballer Bruce Rondon.

This was simply bad fortune for the team and its General Manager.

Had he remained healthy, Rondon might be closing by now and the need to jettison two crown jewels from the minor league pitching stable may not have existed in the first place.

But what’s done is done and the Tigers will move forward having added a talented right arm to the bullpen, at least for the short run.

And so, with the franchise now having passed the point of no return, wouldn’t this be the ideal time-for symmetry’s sake, if nothing else–to add a quality left arm to the bullpen as well?

If Dave Dombrowski can secure that one final piece, it just might provide this team with the postseason glory it so fervently seeks.

In that case Dombrowski would have something in common with the creator of the aforementioned Venus de Milo.

In the minds of Detroit Tiger fans at least, he will have sculpted a masterpiece.