It's very rare that Dave Dombrowski makes a regrettable roster move. By letting Jose Veras go without getting anything in return, he may have done it. Veras threw 62.2 innings in 2013 and recorded 21 saves with a WHIP of 1.07. He was a very solid relief pitcher. He was the closer for the Houston Astros when Dombrowski traded two good prospects to get him at the trade deadline in July. On Friday, the Tigers let him go. For nothing.
Veras earned just $1.85 million in 2013, with a team option for 2014. The option was reported to be $3.25 million, but according to Ken Rosenthal on Twitter, was actually $4 million.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p>Was widely reported that <a href="https://twitter.com/search?q=%23Tigers&src=hash">#Tigers</a> declined Veras' $3.25M option. Number actually was $4M based on escalator for reaching 45 games finished.</p>— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) <a href="https://twitter.com/Ken_Rosenthal/statuses/396671783950368768">November 2, 2013</a></blockquote>
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The fact that the Tigers gave up two prospects is really a separate issue from the fact that they didn't pick up Veras' option for 2014. The Tigers gave up outfielder Danry Vasquez, a consensus top five prospect in the organization, and David Paulino, a young pitcher still in his teens who could be described as a "lottery ticket." At the time, the Tigers were getting more than just a rental in return, since Veras had a very reasonable option for 2014.
The one thing that the Tigers needed more than anything else heading into the 2013 season was relief pitching. Dombrowski didn't do anything about a bullpen that was an absolute mess at the end of the 2012 season. He let Jose Valverde go after he proved to be useless in the postseason. That's it.
This is why this move is so puzzling. Dombrowski finally tried to rectify his error at the trade deadline by acquiring Veras. For the most part, it was a good acquisition the rest of the season. Veras posted a 3.20 ERA in 19.1 innings, with a WHIP of 1.22. Veras notched two saves, nine holds, and didn't allow an inherited runner to score. He was used mainly in an eighth inning setup role. He was a welcome veteran addition to an inexperienced, volatile bullpen.
By season's end, Veras was one of five pitchers who worked the late innings in Jim Leyland's obsessive match up scheme. Drew Smyly was pulled from a setup role where he was extremely successful and switched to late inning partial inning duty. Veras went from setup guy to righty matchup guy. Bruce Rondon and Al Alburquerque were given equal status in the late innings as well. Joaquin Benoit was the only Tiger reliever with a consistent role in the ninth inning.
When the playoffs came, it didn't work. Leyland managed to go through four relievers in Game One of the ALCS with a 1-0 lead and got through it. In Game Two with a four run lead, Veras got the first out, then gave up a double to short left field. It was all downhill from there as Leyland frantically changed pitchers until the game was lost. Veras was the first of five Tiger relief pitchers to give up an earned run in that game.
Veras's most infamous moment as a Tiger came in Game Six of that series. With the Tigers leading 2-1, Max Scherzer left the game with runners on first and second with one out. Leyland went into hyper matchup mode after Smyly got Jacoby Ellsbury to hit a grounder up the middle, which was booted by Iglesias to load the bases. Then Veras hung a 1-2 curveball to Shane Victorino which barely cleared the Green Monster, giving Boston a 5-2 lead. In any other park, any Tiger left fielder catches that ball. Veras then struck out Pedroia, but when Leyland summoned Phil Coke to get David Ortiz, Veras' had made his last appearance as a Tiger.
One thing we can count on is that Dave Dombrowski has a plan, and he's beginning to implement it. It may have to do with cutting expenses in one area so that he can make additions elsewhere. Or it may be that payroll just has to be reduced overall, in which case at least some of the departing free agents such as Infante and Benoit won't be replaced.
Maybe Dombrowski is right. Maybe Leyland's lack of confidence to use Veras as a straight setup man in the eighth inning had some merit. Veras had a season that was above his career norms, and we all know that relievers come and go like the Michigan autumn leaves. Suffice it to say that Veras wasn't part of Dombrowski's plan for the 2014 Tiger bullpen.
But even so, even if they want to move on from Veras, a pitcher with his numbers is worth more than what he'd have cost them in salary. To get a pitcher with that kind of track record will cost more than $4 million these days. If you can make an argument that Veras is easily replaced, find someone that can match his numbers. If such a pitcher is available at all, he'll cost at least that much, and a free agent will cost that much for multiple seasons.
Dave Dombrowski's bullpen schemes have been his greatest weakness as a GM. He has had tremendous success with closers, almost always hiring a free agent for ninth inning duty, and generally at bargain rates. After that, he has been reluctant to spend on setup men, with Benoit and Octavio Dotel being the notable exceptions. The Tigers have paid the price as their bullpens have been sub-standard most seasons.
The Tiger bullpen ranked 12th in the league in ERA in 2013. In prior seasons, they ranked 10th, 11th, 8th, 10th, 12th, and 11th. Not since 2006 have the Tigers had one of the best bullpens in the league. Good relievers have not been easy to find, and Dombrowski might be fairly accused of not trying hard enough at times.
Of all the mediocrity that comprised the Tiger bullpen recently, one would have expected Veras to fill one spot. Now, they will have to replace him. If they try to do so from within, they are bound to fail. Other teams seem to be able to reach into their system and come up with relievers who graduate into late inning duty. Not the Tigers. Joel Zumaya was one reliever, a converted starter in the spring of 2006, who succeeded for a year, and Fernando Rodney came out of the Tiger organization. Drew Smyly was great in 2013 until he was yanked from his setup role But that's about it for impact relievers from the Tiger system.
The Tigers need to overhaul their bullpen and they need to go outside the organization to do it. Whether by trade or free agency, they don't have the talent to patch together a bullpen in their own system. The great relief draft of 2008, when the Tigers drafted four college relievers in the first four rounds, was a complete bust. They have a couple of talented relievers in Rondon, Alburquerque, and youngsters like Melvin Mercedes in the pipeline, but they'd be foolish to count on unproven rookies to fill out a major league bullpen if they plan on making a run at a World Series in 2014.
Dombrowski needs to either extend or replace Benoit in the closer's role. He cannot repeat the mistake of anointing Rondon the closer again. He needs a setup man, and if he trades any of the starting pitchers, that won't be Drew Smyly. In this scenario, he needs to go outside the organization again. In fact, he needs three good relievers. He had one, or two if you count Smyly, and he needs another lefty. He had one more, but he gave him away. Now Veras needs to be replaced, and a suitable replacement can not be found within the current system.
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