The Detroit Tigers sit adrift of the playoff places as the MLB regular season approaches its final month. A postseason without this star-studded team is unfathomable to most baseball observers. With 32 games remaining, the Tigers (71-59) are in a real grapple with other American League contenders to secure their October berth. Promoting Joakim Soria to closer upon his return from the Disabled List may be just the shot in the arm Detroit needs.
Great teams all have dominant late-game stoppers, period.
When considering recent championship teams, lock-down ninth-inning pitchers like Koji Uehara, Sergio Romo and Mariano Rivera spring to mind. This has been a key missing ingredient for Detroit in their thwarted quest for a World Series title the past few seasons.
The identification of their closer weakness compelled general manager/president David Dombrowski to bring in Joe Nathan—MLB’s active leader in career saves—last offseason. However, he and the rest of the current cohort have scuppered all season. Ranking bottom in the American league in WHIP (1.53) and second-last in ERA (4.53) tells the story.
In order to arrest Detroit’s continued bullpen struggles, Dombrowski sought more help before this year’s non-waiver trade deadline.
Soria was having an outstanding season for Texas when acquired on July 23. As his stats below show, the right-hander compared favourably with the top closers in the AL.
|K/BB Ratio||WHIP||Save %|
With much anticipation for his continued success in Detroit, Soria struggled initially in his new surroundings—10.38 ERA in six appearances. After his dominance with the Rangers, as well as Nathan’s aforementioned struggles, it seemed that everything the Tigers tried in the bullpen ended up failing.
What gives? Soria comes to Detroit and can't get people out. Maybe the Tigers bullpen is haunted— Terry Foster (@TerryFoster971) July 30, 2014
Were there outside forces conspiring against Detroit?
Probably not, but things did get worse. Soria landed on the DL with a strained oblique on August 9 and the Mexican righty has not pitched since.
In his absence, Detroit’s bullpen issues have remain unchanged, especially for $20 million man Nathan. His ERA still hovers above 5.00 and he has surrendered runs in three of his past four outings. At 39, he looks like a player that has hit a career wall.
If Soria can continue making progress in his recovery and get healthy, manager Brad Ausmus must install him as Detroit’s closer. As little as six weeks ago he was lights out for Texas and as good as any ninth-inning man in baseball.
Joakim Soria had retired 26 straight batters before allowing a double tonight. Even the Rangers' relievers fall one out short of no-hitters.— Eye on Baseball (@EyeOnBaseball) May 13, 2014
ESPN’s Brian Kenny recently spoke to Matt Dery on Detroit Sports 105.1 and discussed the Tigers’ bullpen issues. He believes that the best pitcher on a team should be their “relief ace.” Players like Rivera (Yankees) and Uehara (Red Sox) played this role for their teams in the past.
Soria could be this player in Detroit. Max Scherzer and David Price also have strong claims to be Detroit’s premier pitcher. But, minus his Detroit numbers, Soria’s season compares favourably with both in several statistical categories.
With so much invested in Nathan, it is not the ideal situation for team management to unseat him as closer. However, pragmatism is required at the business end of a season.
“If your ninth inning guy has a 5.00 ERA and he’s blown saves, well of course you get him out of that role. You do what’s best for your team day-by-day,” says Kenny regarding Nathan.
There were already signs that Soria was on the verge of usurping the closer’s role earlier this month in Toronto. With Nathan creating one of his familiar ninth inning pigsties, Soria entered in a tied game with bases loaded and one out. In convincing fashion he quickly staved off the Blue Jay threat and kept his team in the game. This ended up being his last appearance before the current DL stint. However, Ausmus’ call for Soria, and resultant no-confidence vote in his incumbent closer, was a telling gesture.
Posting an unimpressive 18-21 record since the all-star break, Detroit now trails Kansas City by 1.5 games. Speaking on the Baseball Tonight Podcast, Tim Kurkjian senses that the Royals are now the team to beat in the AL Central.
“I have a feeling they (Kansas City) are going to win the division. Their bullpen is great, their defense is really good and they have scored a few more runs recently. Even though they come back to the pack normally I think they stay ahead this time,” he says.
With K.C. in the ascendancy, Detroit’s season may be in peril if they stick with the status quo. A vintage Soria closing games down the stretch could provide the confidence that oozes through a team and kick-starts a late-season revival.
Mind you, there are other alternatives: Jim Johnson—last in the AL in batting average against (.335); Al Albuquerque (3.47 BB/9) and 2012 ALCS hero, Phil Coke (1.50 WHIP). The thought of either of these players as team closer would make even the most optimistic Tiger supporter wince.
To most fans in Motown, Soria’s promotion to closer is a no-brainer. The question now begs—does Ausmus agree?
*Please note that the stats provided in the table were Soria's whilst playing for Texas.
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