July 23, 2014 at 1:00 am

Deal for Joakim Soria spells relief for battered Tigers 'pen

Detroit — Without question, the Tigers acquired an outstanding relief pitcher on Wednesday night when they traded two of their top pitching prospects to the Texas Rangers for Joakim Soria.

The Tigers parted with right-handers Corey Knebel and Jake Thompson in the deal, but Soria should be a quality addition to the bullpen.

The question now will be if the Tigers are done — or if the Soria trade will be followed by another before the July 31 deadline as they try to the bolster their weakest link, universally known as their bullpen.

First things first, though.

The bottom line is that the Tigers urgently needed help, to make their bullpen better — and on Wednesday night, they unquestionably did.

The deal was first reported while the Tigers were still traveling from Arizona to Anaheim for the second leg of their two-city trip.

They confirmed it shortly after 11:30 p.m.

In Soria, who’s been an excellent relief pitcher for years, and has recovered fully from Tommy John surgery, the Tigers have either landed a new closer or simply a pitcher they can initially rely on for depth — while waiting to see if Joe Nathan returns to being reliable as the closer.

That’s a decision manager Brad Ausmus will have to make. But if Ausmus makes Soria the closer, there will be no clear-cut role for Nathan, whom the Tigers signed to a two-year, $20 million contract last winter.

Nathan, at best, has been inconsistent. He has 20 saves in 25 opportunities, along with a 5.89 ERA. After a rough recent outing at Comerica Park, he left the mound to loud boos from disgruntled Tigers’ fans.

Soria did not come cheaply, though. Knebel, 22, has been erratic in eight relief appearances with the Tigers this season, but has been lights out in the minors.

Thompson, a starter, made huge strides at Single A Lakeland before his recent promotion to Double A Erie. Chances are he’s a prospect most teams asked about when the Tigers called around the relief help —which they still need, by the way,

The 30-year-old Soria, however, was considered one of the best available relief pitchers, if not the best, on the market — and he arrives with an impressive resume, both past and present.

In the span of four years for the Kansas City Royals (2008-2011), he saved 143 games and was twice an All-Star.

But then he got hurt, missed the entire 2012 season after Tommy John surgery, but has made an impressive comeback for the Rangers.

This season, Soria is 1-3 with 17 saves and a 2.70 ERA.

Thompson, a 20-year-old right-hander, was the Tigers’ second-round draft choice in 2012.

At Lakeland, he was 6-4 with a 3.14 ERA in 16 starts.

Knebel, 22, was the team’s first-round draft choice in 2013. He, too, has climbed the organizational ladder, being promoted from Double A Erie to Triple A Toledo this season — then all the way to the majors.

He had a 1.20 ERA in 11 appearances at Erie and a 1.96 ERA in 14 games at Toledo.

Both pitchers the Tigers traded are Texas natives who’ll be pitching much closer to home, it appears, in the months and years ahead.

Soria, though, is not a rental for the Tigers. They’ll have the option of keeping him for $7 million next year or buying out his contract for $500,000 if he proves to be a bust.

One would think, considering the state of the bullpen, that the team’s initial intention is to keep him.

Soria’s future, and the price the Tigers paid for him, will be among the topics no doubt addressed by team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski in a media conference call on Thursday morning.

Make no mistake, though, the acquisition of Soria is a significant move for the Tigers — but because their bullpen has been so unreliable, it may not be the only move they make before the deadline.

They’ve not been just one relief pitcher short, in other words.

tgage@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/Tom_Gage

Joakim Soria is coming to the Tigers in exchange for right-handed pitchers Corey Knebel and Jake Thompson. / Hannah Foslien / Getty Images