Detroit drawn in by veteran's track record in late innings
ANAHEIM -- Long before the Tigers made progress on a deal to bring Joakim Soria to Detroit, team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski asked for references. He had his staff check with two of Soria's ex-teammates in Texas who play for Detroit now.
One was second baseman Ian Kinsler. The other was closer Joe Nathan.
"Both were effusive with praise," Dombrowski said. "I believe one of the comments was, 'Why don't we have him yet?'"
It took nearly a month from there, but they've got him. It wasn't easy, and it wasn't cheap in terms of the return, costing Detroit two well-regarded prospects in Jake Thompson and Corey Knebel. For Dombrowski, like so many who have watched the Tigers for a while, it was something they had to do.
"The price of it is steep," Dombrowski said on a Thursday morning conference call, "but if you're going to make a move, that's the price you're going to have to pay. … You have to give up things to get a player of Soria's caliber. We had to do it, in our estimation."
They didn't do it to replace Nathan at closer, not for now at least. They did it to help solve the late-inning issues that have plagued the Tigers from the seventh inning to the ninth, issues that could lead Dombrowski to another deal before next Thursday's non-waiver Trade Deadline.
Soria excelled at closer this year in Texas, reprising the role that earned him two All-Star selections over five years in Kansas City before Tommy John surgery sidelined him in 2012.
Before he took over the ninth inning with the Rangers, however, he spent the second half of last season working the seventh and eighth innings, setting up save situations for Nathan. As much as Nathan has struggled in the ninth, the seventh inning has been nearly as ugly statistically for the Tigers.
That is what the Tigers were looking to address as they scouted relievers this summer.
"I think it was more important for us to get somebody who could pitch late in the game, that can pitch in the seventh, eighth or ninth," Dombrowski said. "That was really our main focus.
"Joba [Chamberlain] has done a great job in the eighth inning for us. We've struggled at times getting to him in the eighth and on days when he hasn't been able to pitch, we're in a spot then where we've scuffled then in the eighth inning. In the ninth inning, Joe has been inconsistent at times. Lately he has pitched much better for us, other than the one outing, but I think he is throwing the ball better from our perspective. …
"We tried to address all those situations if possible, and we think in Joakim's case that he can do all of those things for us."
The plan for now is for Soria to do a little bit of all those roles, depending on who's available on a given day.
"I'll probably leave Joba in the eighth inning," manager Brad Ausmus said, "because he's pitched so well. I talked to Joakim about pitching in the seventh, pitching in the eighth if Joba isn't available, and actually pitching the ninth if Joe isn't available." The numbers on Soria suggest he can cover a lot of situations. His ratio of four walks to 42 strikeouts over 33 1/3 innings ranks second-best among AL pitchers with at least 30 innings this season, trailing only Oakland closer Sean Doolittle. He hasn't allowed a home run in 36 innings since last September, despite playing in power-friendly conditions in Texas.
While he has been devastating against right-handed hitters, holding them to 4-for-45 with one double and 18 strikeouts, he has held his own against lefties (21-for-81, two walks, 24 strikeouts).
"Soria has shown that he can get left-handed hitters and right-handed hitters out very well. I think that's important," Dombrowski said. "I think it's a plus that we know that we can have Joakim for next year. I don't think that made the deal, per se, but it was a real plus to have it."
It also allowed the Rangers to ask for more, Dombrowski said. Jake Thompson was the third-ranked prospect in Detroit's system, according to MLB.com, and earned the win in last week's All-Star Futures Game. Corey Knebel ranked fifth on the same list, and made it to the big leagues within a year of being drafted.
"We needed to do something at the back end of our 'pen," Dombrowski said, "and I think we had done enough research at this point to know where the markets were and who was willing to do what. You could always go down to the end and see if your assessments are accurate or not, but you also take the risk of not making a move."