Desperate times call for desperate measures. And make no mistake, the Tigers were in a desperate situation with their bullpen. After watching the American League Championship Series slip away last season, as the Boston Red Sox bullpen shut down the Tigers' offense and the Tigers bullpen imploded in true teamwork fashion, the team did not do enough to plug the holes that were left by the departure of their three most prominent late-inning relievers from the bullpen over the off season.
To say that the Tigers bullpen needed help is a gross under statement. The team has a bullpen ERA of 4.41, 26th out of 30 teams in the majors. The bullpen has allowed 14 runs in their last 17-1/3 innings. They had exactly one relief pitcher, Joba Chamberlain, who had shown any consistency all season. They could not take the chance and hope that 39-year-old closer Joe Nathan rediscovered his groove by October. Too much is at stake.
Joakim Soria was the best relief pitcher available. Perhaps, if they waited, the Boston Red Sox would have been open to trading Koji Uehara, but that is far from certain, as the American League's Eastern Division is still up for grabs. And don't think for a minute that Uehara, the only reliever who could be considered to be on Soria's level, could be had for less than the Tigers paid to get the Rangers' closer.
Soria's numbers speak for themselves: 2.70 ERA, a historically good 1.07 FIP, 11.63 strikeouts per nine innings, only 1.08 BB/9, and has not allowed a home run all season. That's not just good — it's awesome! And it's better than anything that the Tigers have to help them win a championship. Soria's fWAR is higher than the total of all the Tigers' current bullpen — combined.
The Tigers did pay a steep price, but not too steep. Corey Knebel was a top five or six prospect in a weak system, who worked his way up to the majors with an electric fastball that still needs command work. He was, and is a promising relief pitcher. Jake Thompson projects to be a starting pitcher in the major leagues one day, but he isn't on many national top 100 prospect lists. The debate rages on twitter whether Thompson is a back end or a mid rotation starter. These guys are good prospects, but they are not Jacob Turner or Andrew Miller.
What made this trade necessary at this cost, and at this time for the Tigers are the market conditions and the dire circumstances that they find themselves in. Maybe if Bruce Rondon hadn't come up lame in the spring, as he was last fall when he was needed, they wouldn't be in this situation. If only Joe Nathan was pitching like he did last season, they might not have to make this deal. But that's not the reality of the situation now.
As we discussed earlier this week, there are very few sellers that could be identified at this time. One was the San Diego Padres, who traded their closer, Huston Street, to the Los Angeles Angels for four good prospects in a six player trade. Another was the Arizona Diamondbacks, who were reluctant to part with former closer, Brad Ziegler, even before the Tigers lit him up like a Christmas tree on Tuesday night. The Phillies would be happy to unload Jon Papelbon and his $13 million per season contract for two more seasons, for some good prospects.
Another seller was the Texas Rangers. One by one, many of the potential sellers could be crossed off the list as their division races tightened. The Red Sox, Rays, and Marlins are in that group. Those who were willing to talk could extract a high price for a closer. The Padres are said to be asking for a king's ransom for former Tiger closer, Joaquin Benoit, who hasn't even been a closer this season, until now.
Maybe the Tigers could have muddled their way into the playoffs with the bullpen that they have. It's true that a pitcher who will throw maybe 25 to 30 innings the rest of this season may not, at face value, be worth two of the organization's top pitching prospects. But this isn't about the regular season. It's about a few critical innings in October.
The reality that Dave Dombrowski was looking at is that he'd have to make a choice. He'd either have to pay the steep price to fix the bullpen, or he'd have to roll the dice on the likes of Joe Nathan, Phil Coke, and Al Alburquerque, in critical innings in October. He couldn't afford to crap out again. He made the right choice.