Phoenix — Jake Thompson has a chance to be a solid, frontline rotation pitcher for the Texas Rangers. He is 20 years old, already at Double A, and is on his way to becoming one of those 200-inning guys big-league teams view as sturdily as an expressway overpass.
Corey Knebel? Same package, only Knebel has a bullpen pedigree. He throws heat and has a vicious curveball. And if any Tigers fan celebrating Wednesday night’s trade for Joakim Soria believes the Tigers shipped two parcels of recyclables to the Rangers, think again.
The Tigers gave up talent — blue-chip talent. It is the price they all along were destined to pay if Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers’ wheeler dealer in chief, was going to end the nonsense that is the Tigers bullpen and allow his team a chance to compete for a world championship in 2014.
Wednesday’s late-night handshake with the Rangers, which brings a legitimate strikeout pitcher and back-end billy club to the Tigers relief corps, will be seen in Detroit and even elsewhere as unavoidable.
If the Tigers are about to turn division titles into World Series rings, they cannot afford to enter October with a bullpen as soft and as accident-prone as their relief staffs were the past two seasons.
It is a harsh lesson the Tigers learned. And apart from the necessity of Wednesday night’s deal, it does, in fact invite a question the Tigers won’t enjoy addressing.
What has kept their own bullpen draft picks and prospects from supplying a team that each and every year is on a high-wire with its relief pitchers?
Indisputably, most teams have bullpen problems. And just as clearly, most teams do a better job of at least bringing to their big-league teams a farm arm or two who can be counted on to help in the late innings and not force a general manager into an 11th-hour shopping spree when a shutdown relief pitcher is needed.
That’s the only hitch to Wednesday night’s dramatic deal with the Rangers. Soria all along was Dombrowski’s man. No question, he was Dombrowski’s first, second, and third choice to repair a Tigers bullpen as much known for its failures as for its successes.
It was no way to win a division. And absolutely it was no way to think a division winner could survive the A’s again, or the Angels, or Orioles, or Red Sox, or any other heavyweight the Tigers might — might — be confronting in October
Soria, without being a complete answer to a team that still has its issues, is as close to a perfect addition as the Tigers could have made on July 24. He is 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, throws right-handed, buries hitters with his fastball and power package, and walks hardly anyone.
Consider again those numbers from 2014 as he worked with distinction for the Rangers: 33.3 innings, 25 hits, 42 strikeouts, four — four — walks.
Imagine that brand of pitcher stepping to Comerica Park’s mound in the seventh, eighth, or ninth inning. A crowd half-wondering what mishap might next sabotage a team and its starting pitcher can now watch a professional punch-out specialist go to work.
Dombrowski has been on the prowl for reliable bullpen help for a year. He thought he had it a year ago when he got Jose Veras. No bargain there. He wanted Brian Wilson at the end of 2013 and instead settled, not unhappily, for Joe Nathan, who on various nights in 2014 has not been the Nathan of old.
He probably had his Soria in camp in Florida this spring in the person of Bruce Rondon, at least until Rondon’s elbow ligament snapped and Rondon was lost to Tommy John surgery.
It was Joba Chamberlain who has saved a team’s brisket in 2014. On that acquisition, as improbable as it might have been to fans and media, Dombrowski scored.
But still these bullpen issues, encapsulated by Tuesday night’s catastrophe against the Diamondbacks that cost the Tigers and Rick Porcello a victory Detroit had otherwise earned.
Dombrowski could wait no longer. He seems always to get his man, most astonishingly in July, when the market is tough and the trade chips are few and expensive.
But, again, understand the Tigers gave away two very good young pitchers Wednesday. The Rangers knew it. They had other suitors. They liked Thompson and Knebel, and for good reason.
Dombrowski likely isn’t done. He still needs a trustworthy left-hander. He might even pull off a surprise deal, maybe for a corner outfielder. Don’t rule out any possibilities as he tries to finish business in Detroit, and most importantly for owner Mike Ilitch.
But one of these days, also, the Tigers need to be strong enough to withstand these July shopping sprees that are always fraught with tension and risk. They must begin developing more of their own talent, especially when amassing pitching is supposed to be their organizational trademark.
That has not been happening with any degree of regularity. While the Tigers try to wrap up a World Series flag Wednesday’s trade hardly guaranteed, they must also assure a fan base the future hasn’t been compromised. This isn’t a sport, or a team, for one year. It’s for the ages. And it deserves to be constructed as such.