Baseball is fewer than 10 days away from the non-waiver trade deadline, yet it remains murky whether the Detroit Tigers will be buyers or sellers.
Late Monday night, USA Today reported that general manager Dave Dombrowski is prepared to make left-hander David Price and left fielder Yoenis Cespedes available. Within the same 24 hours, Fox Sports 1 reported the Tigers had inquired about Colorado Rockies closer John Axford.
Clearly, Dombrowski is preparing for both the possibilities of buying or selling. If the Tigers sell, it makes sense to acquire building blocks for Price and Cespedes, who each have expiring contract. If they buy, trading for a relief pitcher is a must, and Axford is a cheaper option, so that makes sense.
On the surface it does anyway.
Haven’t we been down this road with the Tigers before? Dombrowski continues to believe that acquiring as many closers as possible is the best way to build a bullpen.
Newsflash: it’s not.
But after the 2013 ALCS bullpen blowup, Dombrowski needed to show the Tigers fan base that he was trying to repair the bullpen. So in the last two years, he has added Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria, Joba Chamberlain, Joel Hanrahan and Neftali Feliz.
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These five pitchers have one thing in common: they all have experience closing games (I’m taking the liberties of counting Chamberlain because at one point, he was the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera although he only has seven career saves).
With the exception of Soria, none of these pitchers have worked out. Now, that isn’t really Dombrowski’s fault, but the way he builds the bullpen is fundamentally flawed.
Signing Nathan after his tremendous 2013 wasn’t a poor move although the Tigers probably should have considered he was entering the season at 39 years old. The New York Yankees ruined Chamberlain by trying to turn him into a starter six years ago, so by the time the Tigers got their hands on him, he was all sizzle and no steak.
Jul 19, 2015; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Neftali Feliz (39) pitches during the ninth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Comerica Park. Orioles beat the Tigers 9-3. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
That’s the biggest problem with all these guys. They are big, recognizable names who can’t get anyone out anymore. Just look at the box score of Tuesday night’s game (hint: Feliz gave up the game-winning grand slam).
I actually liked the flier Detroit took on Hanrahan, but Detroit passed on Andrew Miller and Luke Gregerson last winter. Yes, both have turned into closers with their new teams in 2015, but they were successful middle relievers last season.
It is much easier to turn a middle reliever into a closer than the other way around.
By trading for Axford, the Tigers would once again be asking a closer, who hasn’t had much career success as a middle reliever, to pitch the seventh or eighth inning. Theortically, it would be great for the Tigers to apply Axford’s 2.60 ERA this season to the middle innings, but it doesn’t work that way.
Otherwise, Axford wouldn’t have a career 4.48 ERA in 83 eighth-inning appearances. That’s over a run higher than his career ninth-inning ERA of 3.23.
Some closers just can’t “get up” for an appearance if it’s not a save situation. Soria is one of those guys. He had a 2.70 ERA in 35 appearances as Texas’ closer last season, but with Detroit, he posted a 4.91 ERA as the setup man.
This season, Soria has been much better with the Tigers, but his struggles outside the ninth inning have remained. He has a 4.05 ERA in non-save situations versus a 2.70 ERA when the game is on the line.
Luckily, Dombrowski can justify the move for Soria because he became the team’s closer after Nathan went down for the season. A trade for Axford, however, another closer, is unjustifiable.