The Tigers learned today that closer Joe Nathan will be lost for the year to Tommy John surgery. While the 40-year-old was coming off a rough season, he opened the year installed in the 9th and was obviously an important part of the club’s plans. His hefty salary doesn’t make things any easier, although that cost was inked into the books long ago.
Of course, GM Dave Dombrowski had already added a player with closing experience and stuff at last year’s trade deadline. Joakim Soria will handle save situations going forward, and that gives some comfort. But his ascension reduces the quality and depth of the earlier innings. Simply using Soria to get the final out hardly addresses the fact that it will now be more difficult to get to the spot where he’ll be called upon.
Detroit’s bullpen was already a concern entering the year (as it has been in the past). As MLBTR’s Steve Adams discussed in reviewing the Tigers’ offseason, the club did little more than replace Phil Coke with Tom Gorzelanny. To be sure, young righty Bruce Rondon is expected to bring a big arm when he finally returns from Tommy John surgery. But he is still working cautiously back after an earlier setback.
The results have hardly been disastrous thus far, with the Tigers hovering around the middle of the league in terms of reliever ERA. But xFIP and SIERA paint much less promising pictures of the club’s collective relief effort thus far. And, for what it’s worth, projection systems don’t expect many above-average run prevention efforts to emerge from the Detroit pen.
Given the entirety of the situation, there are several ways the team could react. It does have a nice rotation and can put up a lot of runs, after all, so perhaps there’s little reason to act hastily. On the other hand, the Tigers are firmly in win-now mode and could face a drawn out division battle, so every victory matters.
And there are some prominent players with late-inning experience who could be had. Jonathan Papelbon of the Phillies is among the most available players in the game, and may not cost much in prospects if Detroit will assume a good piece of his salary. Even more conveniently, experienced righty Rafael Soriano is still a free agent. It is obviously rare to have a clear option like that still sitting on the open market in late April, making him an obvious possibility.
While it is probably too early for any teams to give up completely on their seasons, that doesn’t mean that some clubs wouldn’t consider moving a useful arm at the right price — motivated, in part, by a rough open to the season. The Brewers, in particular, have dug a monumental hole in a very tough division and have some younger arms they could justify promoting. Jonathan Broxton might be had for little more than salary relief.
Most other clubs will probably be hesitant to part with depth, but could always be convinced at the right price — particularly if Detroit is looking mostly for competent veterans to plug into the middle innings. While they are hardly shaping up to be a seller, for instance, the Padres have plenty of depth and an obvious willingness to get creative in making deals. The more likely scenario, of course, would be to keep a close eye on the waiver wire. The Dodgers, after all, have been aggressively adding (and, in some cases, outrighting) other teams’ cast-offs to bolster their depth.
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