The decision to deal for Joakim Soria at last year's non-waiver trade deadline was a risky venture, to be sure. I called it a "massive overpay" shortly after the deal was announced, and I wouldn't necessarily change my tune today. Corey Knebel and Jake Thompson was a hefty price to pay for any relief pitcher, and Soria's performance for the Tigers -- in an admittedly small sample -- didn't do him any favors.
Tigers fans originally became familiar with Soria when he spent five seasons as the Kansas City Royals' closer. Soria was one of the most underrated relievers in the league, allowing a 2.40 ERA and 2.90 FIP in 315 1/3 innings. He saved 160 games in 180 opportunities, including 15 of 17 against the Tigers. He has been particularly stingy against Detroit in his career, holding batters to hitting just .226/.265/.328 in 148 plate appearances.
Soria missed the entire 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery, the second of his career. The timing of the injury was particularly unfortunate for him, as 2012 was his final year of club control before he was able to become a free agent. Instead of a huge payday as one of the best closers on the market, Soria signed a two year, $8 million contract with the Rangers. The deal included a team option for 2015, which turned out to be a big plus for the Rangers when the Tigers came calling.
Coming into 2014, Soria was slated to become the Rangers' closer after the Tigers signed Joe Nathan during the offseason. Soria got off to a rocky start, allowing four runs in his first five outings. Things settled down quickly, however. He went over a month before allowing another run, tallying seven saves in 12 appearances. Soria was utterly dominant during this stretch, allowing just three hits and no walks in 11 2/3 innings. He also struck out 16 batters, resulting in a 0.39 FIP over the month. He blew his only save of the first half during his next outing, but settled down to finish out the first half with seven more saves in as many opportunities. At the All-Star break, Soria had a 2.67 ERA and 0.89 FIP in 30 1/3 innings pitched.
When the Tigers traded for Soria, the main concern was whether they had paid too much for a reliever with a year and a half of club control remaining. The criticism was legitimate, especially after Jake Thompson was one of the best starting pitchers in the Florida State League during the first half. No one expected Soria's production to fall off a cliff.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened. He struggled in his first outing, allowing two hits and a run while facing just four batters against the Los Angeles Angels. He then imploded against the Chicago White Sox three days later. He allowed six of the seven White Sox hitters he faced to reach base, resulting in four earned runs in an 11-4 blowout loss. Soria got a chance to redeem himself against the Sox two days later, but took the loss when he hit Paul Konerko with a pitch with the bases loaded in a tie game.
Soria got off to a better start in August, throwing a few scoreless innings to open the month. He came up lame while covering first base in an outing against the Toronto Blue Jays, and was placed on the disabled list with a strained oblique. He missed a month of action, and came back to the most uncertain bullpen role of his career. Would he pitch the sixth inning? The seventh? Would he be trusted in high leverage situations?
Ultimately, Soria's role was never sorted out -- an odd situation, given the team's reliance on specific bullpen roles. He pitched 6 2/3 innings in September, allowing a run on three hits. This did not last long, however, as Soria was tagged for four runs in that hellish eighth inning of Game 1 of the ALDS against the Baltimore Orioles. He faced five batters and allowed three hits while throwing just 12 pitches. He finished out his season the next night, taking the loss when the Orioles scored two runs in the bottom of the eighth inning.
It's a harsh grade given the circumstances, but Soria was not very good for the Tigers in 2014. He only tallied 12 total innings -- and possibly could have garnered an "incomplete" grade -- but allowed 11 earned runs in a Tigers uniform. This is a far cry from the stellar numbers he put up in Texas in a larger sample, which should be a better predictor of what to expect next year. After an offseason of stability and a more consistent role in next year's bullpen, Soria should return to being the lights out pitcher he has been throughout the rest of his career in 2015.