Jose Veras, 32, had compiled an 0-4 record, 2.93 ERA (43 inning, 14 earned runs) and 44 strikeouts in 42 appearances with the Astros this season. (Bob Levey/Getty Images)
July arrives and the Tigers grab their cash and credit cards. They go shopping. And in the spirit of past summers, they traded young blood for playoff-grade quality Monday when they brought on Jose Veras from the Astros in a swap that cost them talented 19-year-old outfielder Danry Vasquez, as well as an expendable player to be named later.
Dave Dombrowski might be baseball’s best general manager at pulling off July deals, even in a market as tough, as tight and as high-retail as is the 2013 shopping mall, which closes to non-waiver deals at 4 p.m. Wednesday. And the Tigers’ front-office chief did an artful job of getting his man at a time when trading clubs are demanding the moon and a few additional planets.
What the Tigers landed Monday was a high-powered arm and probable solution to their back-end bullpen wobbles. Veras, 32, had a 2.93 earned-run average and 19 saves in 42 games for a last-place Astros team. Those are strong numbers on a bad team, as are his 44 strikeouts and 14 walks in 43 innings, during which he has allowed only 29 hits.
It is important, and part of Dombrowski’s strategy, that Veras is a closer. While the Tigers are grateful and relieved Joaquin Benoit has become their ninth-inning fireman, settling a job that had been in flux since last season, they are dealing with reality. Benoit is 36. The Tigers have been careful in calibrating his workloads. Veras eases the pressure there when he can move into a ninth-inning role, if necessary, and allow Benoit to work less demandingly with Drew Smyly at the top of Detroit’s eighth-inning corps.
The price was steep. Vasquez, 19, was a Venezuelan teen so talented the Tigers gave him $1 million to sign three years ago. He is 6 foot 3, 173 pounds, bats left-handed, and could become a star.
Supply and demand
The Tigers also knew what they were doing. They have a phalanx of young outfield prospects, some of whom could evolve into good hitters and better two-way players than Vasquez, who at the moment is not a strong defender.
Nick Castellanos, who will move to third base as soon as Miguel Cabrera shifts to first base, designated hitter — or, perhaps at some point, to another team — is the first-chair prospect there. Avisail Garcia is set to assume right field as quickly as Torii Hunter departs 15 months from now.
Daniel Fields, Steven Moya, Tyler Collins, Austin Schotts. The Tigers all along were expected to trade from their outfield surplus as they chased a badly needed established reliever. Vasquez should pay a dividend for the Astros as important to their time and needs as Veras delivers to the Tigers.
Monday’s trade was no surprise, either in terms of what the Tigers got, or the names involved. Veras had been high on any list of potential Tigers acquisitions. Vasquez made sense when the Tigers were not about to part with their top two outfield prodigies, Castellanos and Garcia.
Dombrowski’s problem is he was caught in a high-stakes auction among multiple bidders. What followed is in step with a reputation known across baseball. Dombrowski identifies his needs. He moves aggressively to get his man, or men. He deals with the hard bargains. He and his GM trade partner eventually compromise on a trade that tends to benefit both teams, which is the way it must be in a business where honor and trust, in fact, matter.
The Tigers needed Veras for reasons that are both obvious and overlooked.
Octavio Dotel, a savvy, reasonably certain back-end reliever, has not pitched since April because of elbow problems and is probably history. Brayan Villarreal, who was being counted on as a seventh-inning strikeout arm, lost the strike zone and is back at Triple A Toledo. Al Alburquerque is super-talented but has issues with walks. Bruce Rondon, whom Dombrowski believed could win the closer’s job in spring camp, was not ready and is just now beginning to grow into a back-end weapon.
Meanwhile, Phil Coke has had an erratic season when he was expected to be a lockdown left-handed option.
That left the Tigers begging for a stable power pitcher who could reduce back-end anxiety and prop up a relief corps that could not risk a blowup during October’s playoffs, which is where the Tigers are expected to compete.
Veras was a natural choice. He should also help beyond 2013, considering the $3.25 million team option the Tigers almost certainly will choose to honor in 2014.
Dombrowski, of course, is rarely done hunting even when he would seem to have bagged his supper. And it would be no surprise to see him make at least one more deal, either ahead of Wednesday’s deadline, or perhaps next month when the waiver wire will deliver names that might lead to a trade, as they did in past summers with Delmon Young and Aubrey Huff.
He still needs a left-handed reliever to protect against Coke’s unsteadiness and Darin Downs’ health and performance issues. A stable left-hander would enable Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland to march into the stretch drive, and then into October, with a bullpen as sturdy as the Tigers’ starting corps has, for the most part, been in 2013.
The Tigers are also dealing with the specter of a possible suspension should Jhonny Peralta’s link to the Biogenesis probe lead to time off. Shortstop is merely the most important position on the field and the Tigers won’t gamble there. But the absence of available, affordable shortstops probably leaves the Tigers with internal options as their best response to a possible Peralta vacation.
Dombrowski, of course, knew what he was up against in making his first July deal.
“I would say that is true,” he responded Monday when asked if this year’s trade mart was as tough as any he has faced in his 35 years in baseball, which is how it appeared from here.
He conceded also that opposing GMs had, at least early on, insisted on Castellanos and Garcia as he worked the phones and proposed deals with his rivals.
“Everyone starts with your top prospects closest to the majors,” he said, and it is known some of those potential trade partners weren’t backing down from the Castellanos-Garcia demands.
Would he expect any deals Wednesday, when the sticker-price might slip a notch, particularly if teams such as the Giants and Phillies sell aggressively and prompt a markdown on inventory?
“I really have no idea how that would work,” July’s persistent dealmaker said. “But by today’s announcement, you can see how it has worked so far.”
You’re free to grin at that closing line. The boss is still playing poker. Still hiding his hand. Still trying to deliver his owner, Mike Ilitch, a championship that another trade or two might secure.