One of the recurring themes of the Dave Dombrowski era was the Detroit Tigers' inability to build a good bullpen. They paid dearly for their lackluster pen in 2014 when they traded top prospects Jake Thompson and Corey Knebel to the Texas Rangers for reliever Joakim Soria, who had just capped off an All-Star-worthy first half as the team's closer.
We all know the story from there. Soria strained an oblique, hardly pitched in the second half, and the Tigers were swept out of the playoffs by the Baltimore Orioles. Many angry words were written about these events, and it's probably best we just forget it all happened.
After a solid partial season with the Tigers in 2015, he was shipped to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for JaCoby Jones, a high-upside prospect who can play multiple positions. Unlike Yoenis Cespedes, however, a reunion between Soria and the Tigers may actually be on the way. Tony Paul of the Detroit News reported that the Tigers are interested in bringing back Soria in 2016, and the feeling may be mutual. Re-signing Soria would be a big boost to the Tigers bullpen, but could result in the same depth issues the Tigers experienced under Dombrowski.
Who is he?
Soria joined the Tigers in 2014, but spent several years in the AL Central prior to then. He was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers as an amateur free agent in 2001, released three years later, and then selected by the Kansas City Royals in the Rule 5 draft in 2006. Soria did not pitch for the Royals in 2006, but took control of their closer role midway through his rookie season in 2007. Over the course of the next five years, Soria would establish himself as one of the premier closers in baseball. He saved 160 games in 180 chances for Kansas City, allowing a 2.40 ERA and 2.90 FIP in 315 1/3 innings. This included a pair of All-Star seasons with a sub-1.80 ERA, along with a 10th place finish in the AL Cy Young voting in 2010.
Soria missed the entire 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery, the second of his career. He signed with the Rangers the next offseason, then made an abbreviated return in 2013, allowing a 3.80 ERA in 23 2/3 innings. He saved 17 games in 19 opportunities with the Rangers prior to being traded to Detroit, but gave up a 4.91 ERA in 11 innings with the Tigers in 2014. Following his trade to Pittsburgh in July, Soria held opponents to a 2.03 ERA and 1.93 FIP in 29 appearances as Mark Melancon's setup man.
Why should we care?
While he had a mild case of homer-itis, Soria was one of the bright spots of the Tigers' staff in 2015. He held opponents to a 1.05 WHIP and posted a 3.27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 41 innings of work. His fastball command seems to have returned to pre-surgery norms, as he posted a 7.0 percent walk rate in 67 2/3 total innings. He also stranded 86.4 percent of all baserunners he allowed, a rate reminiscent of his best seasons in Kansas City.
While he did not strike out a batter per inning like in his heyday with the Royals, Soria's fastball velocity returned to pre-surgery levels. His 92.9 mile-per-hour average fastball velocity was actually the highest of his career, better than the 91-92 mile-per-hour range he averaged during his years in Kansas City. Soria also relied on the fastball more than ever, throwing it over 70 percent of the time. Opponents hit just .242 off the fastball, though they also slugged six home runs for a .462 slugging percentage.
Why should we stay away?
As good as his overall numbers looked at season's end, Soria did not look like the pitcher that dominated the American League in a Royals jersey from 2007 to 2011. He gave up eight home runs in 41 innings with the Tigers, six of which came in a brutal month-long stretch in May and June. To his credit, Soria buckled down after that rough patch, allowing four runs in his next 13 1/3 innings prior to getting traded. We won't talk about that game.
The biggest warning sign that Soria might not be the same pitcher of yesteryear is his sharp drop in strikeout rate. After fanning 26.4 percent of batters in 2014, Soria fanned just 21.8 percent of hitters in his time with the Tigers in 2015. His strikeout rate perked up in his short stint with the Pirates, but it was in a very small sample of innings. Soria's 1.93 FIP in 26 2/3 innings with the Pirates is unsustainable, but far better than his 4.87 FIP with the Tigers. It will be interesting to see which pitcher returns to action in 2016.
Will he end up in Detroit?
It feels like Soria has been around forever, but he will only be entering his age-32 season in 2016. He has been one of the most consistent relievers in baseball throughout his career, and while he had moments of uncertainty in 2015, he still put up solid numbers in both uniforms he wore. Soria is arguably the biggest name on the market, and will likely be looking for premier closer money, but as we've seen before, the Tigers are not shy about signing premier closers with little regard for the rest of the bullpen. Ideally, the new regime continues the former without neglecting the latter.