Joakim Soria is by far the best pitcher remaining in the Detroit Tigers bullpen. He is the only relief pitcher on the team to finish among the top 10 relievers in the American League in FIP or fWAR. In fact, he's the only Tigers reliever to finish among the top 30 in either category.
Soria ranked ninth in the league in WAR and eighth in FIP (minimum 40 innings pitched) despite being limited to only 44 innings of work after being sidelined on the disabled list for six weeks down the stretch. He had the league's fourth-best walk rate and posted a strikeout rate of 9.75 batters per nine innings. He also allowed just 0.41 home runs per nine innings. No other Tigers relief pitcher comes even close to that level of performance.
The Tigers' biggest issue at the end of the 2014 season is the same issue that they had at the end of 2013, and at the end of 2012. Their bullpen was completely inadequate. Other than Soria, there isn't another relief pitcher on the Tigers' staff with an FIP under 3.00, or a walk rate under three batters per nine innings. They also did not have another reliever worth 1.0 WAR.
Two days after the end of the World Series, the Tigers have to decide whether to exercise a $7 million club option for Soria for the 2015 season or to buy him out for $500,000. They should exercise the option. To do otherwise would be self destruction.
When the bullpen was in a shambles in July, the Tigers traded their best starting pitching prospect in Jake Thompson and their best relief pitching prospect in Corey Knebel to the Texas Rangers for Soria. It was a steep price to pay, but the team was desperate for a good relief pitcher. They're no less desperate now, and they would be even more desperate if they paid half a million dollars to shoot themselves in the foot.
If Soria were on the free agent market today, he would be the best available right-handed reliever available. He would cost at least $7 million and there is no way you could sign him for just one season.
Soria's stellar numbers for the 2014 season are nothing new for him. In his eight major league seasons, he has consistently struck out over a batter per inning while posting among the best walk rates and home run rates in the game. He was a better closer than Joe Nathan and a better set up man than Joba Chamberlain during the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
The only free agent relief pitcher who is in the same class as Soria is former Tiger Andrew Miller, whom the Tigers tried to reacquire at the trade deadline from the Boston Red Sox. We all know what happened next. Miller, now pitching for the Orioles, shut down the Tigers in the playoffs while Detroit's bullpen imploded. Again.
The Tigers will need more than just Soria. Miller will probably cost $7 million for three seasons or more, and Dave Dombrowski should make a hard push to sign him also. But first things first. Don't make the bullpen worse before you start to make it better.
The Tigers counted on Bruce Rondon to be their closer in 2012, having never pitched in the major leagues, and that failed. Then, they counted on him to be a set-up man in 2013, and that failed when he was injured. Rondon has all of 28 innings in the major leagues, with a WHIP of 1.36 and a walk rate of 3.5 per nine innings. It generally takes two years before a pitcher rebounds from Tommy John surgery. Please don't tell us that Rondon is the answer to what ails the Tigers bullpen.
It's easy to be distracted by Soria's uncool numbers with Detroit after the trade. His 5.22 FIP and 4.91 ERA are uncharacteristically high for him. The two home runs that he allowed were the only two that he allowed all season. He walked only two batters as a Tiger, and only six batters all season. He pitched all of 11 innings with the Tigers, while Joba Chamberlain and company were blowing games.
The decision to use Chamberlain and Nathan over Soria probably cost the Tigers at least one playoff game, and maybe more. It was a managerial blunder of gargantuan proportions. Failure to pick up his option would be an even greater mistake.