DETROIT — Dave Dombrowski’s latest trade also felt like one of his most predictable.
There was simply no way the Detroit general manager was going to sit idly by without addressing his team’s bullpen.
“We’ve been working on trying to find someone in the bullpen for an extended period,” Dombrowski said. “It’s something we’ve been focused on for a while. For the month of July, at least.”
The Tigers added one of the game’s better relievers in a trade earlier this week, acquiring Joakim Soria from Texas, but that may only be the beginning of a significant overhaul in the way Detroit approaches the late innings. Manager Brad Ausmus stuck with his usual routine in Thursday night’s win over the Los Angeles Angels, using Joba Chamberlain in the eighth and Joe Nathan in the ninth. But with Soria in the fold, Ausmus now has more options.
Detroit’s bullpen woes are nothing new. The Tigers finally gave up on Jose Valverde as their closer last year, letting Joaquin Benoit handle that role instead. Benoit pitched well, but the grand slam he allowed to Boston’s David Ortiz was perhaps the defining moment of baseball’s entire postseason in 2013.
Benoit left via free agency, and Detroit signed Nathan, who was coming off a sparkling season with the Rangers. The 39-year-old right-hander has slipped badly this year. Even after striking out the side to close out a 6-4 win Thursday, his ERA was an unsightly 5.73.
Nathan has shown mild signs of improvement, posting a 3.68 ERA in his last 15 appearances, striking out 21 in 14 2-3 innings in that span. But statistically, Soria has been better this year than any of Detroit’s current relievers — and the Tigers gave up a couple promising young arms to get him. Ausmus says he’s keeping Nathan and Chamberlain in their usual roles for now — but Soria’s presence means the Detroit manager doesn’t have to be overly patient with anyone.
Soria struck out 42 with only four walks this season with Texas.
As desperate as they’ve seemed for bullpen help, the Tigers didn’t have to do anything totally irrational to acquire it. Thursday’s victory gave Detroit a seven-game lead in the AL Central. The Tigers have had an unusual season. They’ve had winning streaks of eight, seven, six and five, but they also went through a 9-20 stretch that briefly knocked them out of first place.
“Even if you win 95 games — which is real good — you’re losing 67. And there are streaks attached to that,” Dombrowski said. “We’re a little streakier than I thought we would be as far as losses are concerned. You don’t really expect us with our starting pitching staff ... usually when you have strong starting pitching, and some good offense, which we have, that puts sort of a stop to those streaks.”
The starting rotation has been a strength of this team for the last couple years. Now, the goal is to assemble a bullpen that will enable the Tigers to succeed in tight games when runs are scarce.
Chamberlain has been solid in his first season with the Tigers, and the addition of Soria should certainly help. But even if Nathan pitches better, Detroit could probably still use more depth. Left-handed relievers Ian Krol and Phil Coke have generally been erratic.
If the Tigers reach the postseason, they could move lefty Drew Smyly from the rotation to the bullpen, where he excelled last year. But there could still be more moves on the way between now and then.
“We’re still open-minded to getting better,” Dombrowski told reporters on a conference call after trading for Soria. “Our bullpen has been a situation that has been our major focus and I guess would continue to be our major focus if we are going to do something.”