General manager Dave Dombrowski made his first major move of the season Wednesday when he acquired veteran relief pitcher Joakim Soria from the Texas Rangers in exchange for two of the Tigers' top five minor league prospects.
The move clearly strengthened a suspect Detroit bullpen, adding a closer with seven years of dominating performances to a mix that includes several young arms. But the addition of Soria does raise a question inside the Tigers locker room: Who should be the closer?
Soria arrived in Detroit with 17 saves and a 2.70 ERA in 35 appearances. The 30-year-old has allowed runs in just six of those appearances and walked four batters all season.
The obvious solution is that Soria, who joins the Tigers as one of the most effective closers in the league, would take over the ninth inning and give fans in Detroit some relief from a part of the game that has been shaky ever since Todd Jones donned the Old English D.
But the choice becomes much more difficult when a $20 million road block is added to the equation: Joe Nathan.
When Dombrowski let standout relief pitcher Joaquin Benoit leave without a fight in the offseason, he did so with confidence after signing the top closer on the market. Nathan signed his two-year deal on December 3 after two straight All-Star seasons in which he saved 80 games and posted a 2.09 ERA for Texas. The move appeared to solidify the closer's role for Detroit, as Nathan had never blown a save in Comerica Park.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, Nathan's struggles began right out of the gate. The 39-year-old blew his first save opportunity during the second game of the season and posted a 5.59 ERA in April. Now the season is more than halfway over and Nathan owns a 5.73 ERA and has blown five save opportunities.
Joe Nathan stats by month:
April: 1-0, 5.59 ERA, five saves
May: 0-1, 5.40 ERA, eight saves
June: 2-1, 9.00, four saves
July: 0-1, 3.38 ERA, four saves
On the surface the trade for Soria may look like a death sentence for Nathan's ninth-inning role. But with a seven-game lead in the AL Central, the Tigers are much more likely to keep hoping the veteran can regain his All-Star form.
For those frustrated with manager Brad Ausmus' patience regarding Nathan, look no further than the closer's career resume for an explanation. In 13 Major League seasons Nathan has posted an ERA over 3.00 just three times while posting an ERA under 2.00 five times. Despite his struggles, the Tigers can only maximize their potential as a World Series contender if Nathan pitches like he has for so long.
Nathan: 896.1 innings, 954 strikeouts, 362 saves, 2.88 ERA
Soria: 372.1 innings, 411 strikeouts, 177 saves, 2.51 ERA
Soria's move to closer would push Nathan into a setup role that he has comparatively struggled in throughout his career. Below is a breakdown of Nathan's pitching performance during the course of a game:
1st-5th innings: 4.15 ERA
6th inning: 6.25
7th inning: 3.56
8th inning: 2.88
9th inning: 2.35
Though Nathan has been an effective eighth-inning pitcher in limited chances during his career, Joba Chamberlain has posted a 1.60 ERA in that role in 36 games for the Tigers. Moving Nathan to any other inning introduces the risk of throwing off the bullpen roles that have been established over the first 100 games.
Soria has limited experience in any inning before the eighth, but all signs point to the newest Tiger joining the group of relievers who get the ball to Chamberlain. Soria will likely see time in the seventh inning, in which he has thrown just 6.1 innings during his career. If he can pitch as effectively earlier in the game as he has in the ninth inning, then the Tigers will have a dynamic duo of relievers to hand Nathan the ball in the ninth inning.
Soria certainly gives the Tigers a shut-down insurance policy if Nathan continues to blow saves as the postseason inches closer. For now, he offers Detroit a third veteran reliever with the potential to equip the Tigers with one of the strongest bullpens in the American League.
But, as it has all year long, everything hinges on Nathan's ability to turn his season around.