Back in November and through the winter the Tigers could have signed a guy like Joakim Soria for roughly the salary that the Tigers will now be paying Soria. They did not make any attempt to do so over financial concerns alone. How did we wind up here?
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There’s no sense in crying over spilt milk, but it’s just as nonsensical to argue that with 20/20 hindsight the Tigers wouldn’t have been better off signing Benoit for 2 and $15 million, obviating the need to part with prospects. While the Tigers only have to pay part of Sofia’s 2014 salary as opposed to all of it, the could have really used an arm like that all season long. Knebel and Thompson also represented a $2 million signing bonus investment now wasted such that the Tigers would be better of as far as 2014 win-loss record and no worse off financially if they had signed a reliever this offseason AND declined to sign Knebel and Thompson (which anyone would have considered foolish). At the moment, we’re also hearing that the Tigers may be about to deal valuable arms for another reliever in lefty Andrew Miller. Prior to the season, Dave Dombrowski was perfectly content to enter the season with Phil Coke and Ian Krol as the bullpen lefties and unwilling to spend dollars alone (not prospects) to get an upgrade. Now this has changed. In retrospect, with that 20/20 hindsight. this is no way to run a team. So why did it happen?
The standard story is that this trade was necessitated by unforeseen and unforeseeable injuries and ineffectiveness that have made the Tigers bullpen an intolerable weakness for a team with championship ambitions. That certainly seems accurate in some respects – determining those actual changes in front office strategy. In other respects it does not – some of the problems that the Tigers bullpen has had (due to lack of depth) were foreseeable and foreseen and the Tigers bullpen might not really have been an intolerable weakness.
Prior to the season I and others wrote that the Tigers, simply given players own injury histories, ages and pitch mixes and general overall tendencies, were basically a lock to lose either Bruce Rondon OR Al Alburquerque for most of the season and would probably – on average – lose another of the initial 7 man bullpen to injury and another to extreme ineffectiveness. Indeed, they lost Rondon and Luke Putkonen to injury and Evan Reed to ineffectiveness. That is unfortunate, but predictable and would have been easier to overcome had the Tigers loaded up on arms (likely leaving Putkonen and Reed as 8th and 9th relievers waiting in Toledo). Moreover, Albuquerque has actually been healthy and very good – so it isn’t even as though things went “worse” for the Tigers than our most likely scenario. The Tigers were understood to be taking big gambles on bounceback seasons from Joba Chamberlain and Phil Coke, Chamberlain has been tremendous but Phil Coke has been the same old inadequate Phil Coke. It could have been the other way around, but we expected that somebody would flop.
This IS the bullpen that we had expected, given what we always expect in terms of random variation. With one major difference: Joe Nathan started the season with 10 rough weeks. His ERA is still inflated, he has already blown more saves than we had expected for the whole season, Tigers fans and Tigers management have been upset. On that specific count, though, Nathan has actually fixed things already, his strikeout rate is back where it should be and the ERA is drifting down. Trades are not intended to displace Nathan from the closer role, and that probably isn’t even being considered. Dombrowski, thankfully, avoided falling into the trap that the Marlins fell into with Heath Bell of keeping him in the closer role through a long slump and then bumping him out as soon as he had recovered. Other than that? Al Al and Joba are great while Coke stinks and Rondon recovers. Could have been Coke being lights out while Joba stunk, but it would have been unreasonable to expect that things would be much better than this in the aggregate. The Tigers DID, nonetheless, have 3 really quality arms to rely on in Al Al, Joba and Nathan and a lot of organizational depth to call on to fill back end spots prior to this trade (or these trades, as I write this).
Let me reiterate. Prior to the season that was OK. The Tigers were NOT going to throw money at Benoit and were NOT going to throw money at Boone Logan just to avoid this predicament (in which, shockingly, a guy who missed the end of last season also missed this season and a guy who stunk last year continued to stink this year!). They couldn’t afford it and felt they’d likely win the division anyway. The key was to have good late inning guys, which I would argue that they had as of a week ago and to otherwise muddle through.
Suddenly deciding to both open the checkbook AND part with valuable prospects just because things didn’t go unexpectedly well seems silly, it seems irrational and it sounds like it can’t be or shouldn’t be what is motivating Dave Dombrowski’s change of heart. That leaves us with two possibilities:
1: These changes of heart, pertaining to willingness to spend, are coming from an aging and increasingly frail owner and might in fact be “irrational” from a business or strategic perspective
2: The Tigers overall financial strategy has changed since the offseason.
My money would be on number 2. When the Tigers were making those payroll decisions, the strategy was definitely to sign Max Scherzer to a long-term extension (the details of which are already known) and probably to resign both Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez to shorter term extensions. It now looks unlikely that the Tigers will hold onto either Scherzer OR Hunter after 2014. Assuming the plan is to go with Ray (with a swingman likely signed as a backup plan) to replace Scherzer and JD Martinez to replace Hunter, that will actually leave a significant amount of cash in the payroll budget that could be allocated to non-closer relievers. Soria DOES now fit in the budget, and there would probably be room to extend Andrew Miller too.