Absence does not make the heart grow fonder, but it sure heats up the blood.
The news this week has been of Tigers reliever Joakim Soria throwing 25-pitch bullpen sessions as he readies himself to return in September as the Tigers duke it out with the Cleveland Indians and the Kansas City Royals. Soria is a fine relief pitcher and will hopefully round into form quickly to boost the Tigers' bullpen.
After all...he's been missed terribly while on the Disabled List. Oh wait...has he? Let's look into that in a moment.
The Soria deal was consummated to fanfare of saving the Tigers bullpen and readying them for the post-season wars that were surely on tap. The Tigers paid a hefty fee to gain Soria's services by shipping two of their top pitching prospects, Jake Thompson and Cory Knebel, to the Texas Rangers.
Soria entered the Tigers bullpen and went.....thud. Three rocky outings followed. Then Soria seemed to be settling in with three solid efforts. The last outing in Toronto on August 9th. Unfortunately a side issue cropped up and the DL was in order.
Since Soria's final outing in Toronto the Tigers have been treading water going 13-12 overall after the Tigers 7-0 loss in Cleveland on Wednesday night. Surely Soria's presence may have swung a game or two the Tigers way over that time? The answer, to this point, is "no".
If you go over the box scores since the injury, which I did, the Tigers haven't had a loss where you could even indirectly attribute the loss to Soria's absence. I had no measure here to quantify this other than if I could easily say "Damn, the Tigers might have won that game if they had Soria available".
Most games in this 25-game stretch have been lost in early innings with either the Tigers woe-begotten defense or their starting pitching giving up big crooked numbers. The Tigers bullpen hasn't been picture perfect, but you can't really hang a loss on them of late. The idea that trading for a shut down reliever always sounds sensible. But the fact of the matter is that a game has to be delivered to a bullpen...they may pitch the final couple of innings but a lot happens in the seven innings or so before they enter. Offense, defense, starting pitching...all of those come first. So it's not overly shocking that over a 25-game span, in the heart of a division race, even a relatively weak bullpen like the Detroit's hasn't done much to hurt the club in the big picture.
The Tigers did blow a lead in the 8th inning in Tampa...and one could argue that Soria may have been a key that night. But the Tigers did ultimately win that game in the 11th inning. If you want to argue that they tired out their bullpen for a day over this, I suppose you could.
25-games is a small sample. No doubt about it. However when it comes to relief pitching and it's value, we are often talking about small samples. What this snapshot does for me is confirm what I thought in the milli-seconds after the deal was announced. The Tigers overpaid in spectacular fashion for a bullpen arm. Two solid prospects for a guy with an injury record who would pitch 25 innings at most this season and into the playoffs.
Do I believe the Tigers should have looked to bolster their bullpen via trade? Absolutely. All evidence supported the idea of acquiring help. However everything has it's price. The price to get Soria was simply over the top. I would have this opinion even if he was healthy and pitching nicely since the deal. But the injury just puts a spotlight on one of Dave Dombrowski's bigger mis-steps. The fact that the club hasn't even felt Soria's absence is all the more evidence of the overpay.
Bullpens can be built in many different ways. We've seen that all over baseball. There are enough varying avenues of success that two of Dombrowski's recent routes should be crossed off the list. Trading premium assets for bullpen arms and signing big ticket free agents. Neither is truly necessary the majority of the time.
With all this said, Soria is now a Tiger. He's also a fine pitcher when healthy. Getting him back and ready to roll will hopefully help the Tigers compete for the AL Central title and find success in the post-season. Also it's likely the Tigers will keep him around next season and maybe he'll rip off a big season. I don't want him to struggle just to claim being "right". Who cares about that? What's done is done...he'll have his chances to contribute.
I just wish the Tigers hadn't paid such a large dowry to get him. It didn't look good on the day it went down and not much has happened since to alter that view. The overall impact from the bullpen isn't big enough to invest so much largesse. Bullpens are important, have no doubt, but you don't cash in all your chips there.