The Joakim Soria Trade: A Win for Both Teams Involved
In one motion, the Tigers addressed their biggest need coming out of the All-Star break, and the Rangers fortified their farm system and future pitching staff with two young cost-controlled arms.
The Tigers gave up a relatively large prospect haul for Soria, but with Mike Ilitch getting older by the day and a seven-game lead in the AL Central, this team is built to win now. Going into 2014, Thompson and Knebel were ranked as the team’s number five and number seven prospects, respectively, according to Baseball America. (They are now ranked as the Rangers’ number six and seven prospects on MLB.com.) Soria, of course, was working as the Rangers’ closer this season and with a 2.70 ERA and 17 of 19 saves, he is the fortification the Tigers need.
The Tigers Perspective: Their Need
Going into game action tonight (Soria didn’t pitch yesterday), the Tigers have a 4.37 bullpen ERA. That’s fourth from the bottom of the American League. Closer Joe Nathan, whom the Rangers replaced in that role with Soria just this past off-season, has struggled to the tune of a 5.73 ERA, and has blown five saves despite picking up his 21st last night.
The Tigers are also tied for the second-highest bullpen WHIP in the AL at 1.42. Several of their relievers, most notably lefty Phil Coke and Nathan, have had up-and-down seasons. Even Knebel, whose active roster spot Soria took, had a 6.53 ERA in 8.2 innings pitched. The Tigers were desperate for an arm that could provide good, consistent, clean innings, and they got it in Soria.
What They Got
After a year and a half recovering from Tommy John surgery and a signing a team-friendly contract, Joakim Soria is experiencing quite the career renaissance. I’m not going to go into the keys to Soria’s success this season; that’s an article for another day. The Tigers’ bullpen has the highest batting average against in the AL at .272, and as mentioned, a 1.42 WHIP. Soria has a 0.87 WHIP, strengthened by his unholy 1.1 BB/9 rate. He’s walked only four batters this season. Among AL relievers with at least 20 innings pitched, he’s ninth in WHIP and has superb 11.3 K/9 this season - he’s second to Sean Doolittle in K/BB ratio at 10.50. Perhaps most impressively, his FIP is a career-low 1.07. At age 30, Soria’s putting together arguably his best season.
It must also be noted that Joakim Soria signed a team-friendly two year deal prior to the 2013 season. He’s only being paid $5.5 million this year, and has a $7 million team option for next year with a $500,000 buyout. If he continues on his current pace, that option will be a no-brainer for the Tigers. He’s not a rental player, necessarily. That gives him added value to the Tigers, but it also allowed the Rangers to ask for more.
The Rangers’ Perspective: Their Position
Sitting in last place in the AL West (which is tough to do in a division with the Astros in it), the Rangers were destined to be sellers. It had been known that they were willing to part with Soria, even if they aren’t yet willing to sell off their core players like Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus. They didn’t need Soria anymore, and got back quite a haul for their closer.
The Rangers’ bullpen situation is a mess (4.46 ERA), but then again, so is their rotation. With their injuries and general pitching problems this season, their entire staff needs an overhaul. The Rangers have several young arms that could be in the bigs soon, as well as five important arms currently on the DL (Alexi Ogando, Martin Perez, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, and Tanner Scheppers).
Not all of those guys are going to be effective when they return (or in the case of the prospects, make it in the big leagues), so with an eye on the future, the Rangers wanted to shore up their pitching. Plus it never hurts to have more pitching when you play in Arlington. With Knebel and Thompson, five of the Rangers’ top 10 prospects per MLB.com are pitchers at AA or above (http://detroit.tigers.mlb.com/mlb/prospects/watch/y2014/index.jsp?c_id=det#list=tex). That’s serious depth. Soria is a great reliever and a proven commodity, but selling him for two top prospects made a lot of sense for the retooling Rangers.
What They Got Back
A caveat to that 6.53 ERA that Knebel is sporting this season: he had a 1.64 FIP. He also had a 1.62 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 33.1 innings pitched at two stops in the minors this season while working exclusively as a reliever. With a mid-90s fastball and a 65 score curveball, he’s likely to slot into an eighth inning role sometime soon. He has a first-round pedigree, having been selected 39th overall in the 2013 draft in the Competitive Balance round by the Tigers. He’s been assigned to Triple-A Round Rock in the Rangers’ organization. He's no doubt Major League ready, but since the Rangers aren’t competing this year, they have no reason to let him accrue service time in the Majors. In the meanwhile, they can point to his small-sample-size ERA as proof that he needs more seasoning. Look for him to be called up again in September, perhaps.
Jake Thompson was a second round pick back in 2012 by the Tigers, and has been ranked higher than Knebel partly due to youth (he was a high-school draftee), partly due to projectability, and partly due to the fact that scouts value minor league starters more than relievers. Now the Rangers’ number six overall prospect, Thompson has a 3.06 ERA with a .243 batting average against in 18 starts (16 at High-A, 2 at AA). I’ve seen varying projections for him, from solid reliever to number 2 starter to number 4 starter. At the moment he’s still at least a year away though, so no rush.
What Comes Next?
At a bare minimum, this trade gives the Tigers a solid eighth-inning arm. Zach Links at MLB Trade Rumors quoted GM Dave Dombrowski as being committed to leaving Nathan in the ninth inning, which was proven true last night. Moving forward, Soria will presumably be the bridge to him. But if Nathan continues to struggle in the long term, look for Soria to take over as closer. The consequences for the postseason are also evident, because managers have been quick to pull starters more and more in the postseason recently. A deep bullpen is now more of a necessity in the postseason than ever.
Despite all of their bloated contracts, the Rangers still have a very rich farm system that just got richer. Between their young arms and their injured pitchers, they’ll be well positioned to either load their pitching staff or deal in the offseason for a bat. They could still use a lot of help, especially at catcher and in the outfield. In flipping their closer, they’ll save a bit of money and took home a top starting prospect and a prospect with a good chance to blossom into a closer in his own right.
It looks like a win-win for both sides.