July 25, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

It's still up to Brad Ausmus to figure out Tigers' new bullpen mix

It’s about the present, obviously. But also about the presence.

And by trading for Rangers closer Joakim Soria, Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski has given his rookie manager a little — or maybe a lot — of both, adding a shutdown reliever who’ll immediately help shore up his team’s biggest weakness.

Dombrowski may not be done yet, either, as he said Thursday he remains “open-minded” about swinging another deal, and probably not for a left-handed bat or a veteran shortstop.

“I don’t know that either one of them would be real high on our priority list at this point,” Dombrowski said.

Instead, it’s the bullpen “that has been our major focus,” he added, “and I guess would continue to be our major focus if we are going to do something.”

That’s welcome news for fans who’ve grown accustomed to expecting bad news in the late innings, dating to the fall of 2012. Ditto Brad Ausmus, whose first year on the job has been a bit of a roller coaster, thanks in part to all the erratic performances he has gotten after taking the ball from his starters.

Yet with this latest trade-deadline statement from the front office, and perhaps another lesser deal looming in the next week, there’s also this underlying message: It’s up to Ausmus now to make this all work.

If the Tigers bullpen was a disaster in the making, it was also a ready-made excuse for a team with a championship mandate, much like last season. Not so anymore.

The Tigers rotation remains a strength, with front-line starters to match any contender. The lineup is solid, ranking first in the American League in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. The defense, while hardly golden, is improved from a year ago.

Late options

And now the bullpen, with the fifth-worst ERA in the majors, has added arguably the best reliever on the market.

“Throwing Soria into the mix, it definitely shortens the game for us,” said Joe Nathan, the incumbent Tigers closer, “and gives us a lot of options from the sixth inning on.”

Indeed, Dombrowski used the word “versatility” more than once Thursday in discussing the trade for Soria, whom he’d targeted nearly a month ago. He also talked about trying to manage his manager’s comfort level.

But there’s still a chance this will get uncomfortable if Ausmus is forced to shuffle roles or juggle egos down the stretch. Who will he turn to first in the high-leverage situations? And while Nathan remains the closer for now, what if he falters again?

Soria, who was Nathan’s setup man last season in Texas, arrived saying all the right things. (“I’m gonna do whatever they want me to do,” he told reporters in New York after the trade news broke during a rain delay at Yankee Stadium.) Likewise, Nathan, who along with ex-Ranger Ian Kinsler endorsed the move in early July when Dombrowski asked Ausmus to do a little in-house scouting, doesn’t sound overly concerned.

“When I was going through a tough time, (Ausmus) was patient with me, which I’m grateful for,” Nathan said in an MLB Radio interview Thursday. “He’s still continuing to be patient with me. So I appreciate everything he’s done for me. And I think his approach as a manager helps us to relax and go out there and play the game.”

Big picture

Watching the bullpen — and Nathan in particular — has been anything but relaxing for much of this season, however. And Tuesday’s 5-4 road loss to the Diamondbacks, while it had nothing to do with the Tigers closer, was another example of why Dombrowski viewed this Soria trade as a “necessity.”

Joba Chamberlain, a season-long stalwart in his eighth-inning role, was unavailable. But desperate to build on a one-run lead in the eighth, Ausmas lifted starter Rick Porcello in a two-out, bases loaded situation, and then watched as that decision — one that would’ve made sense with a more-reliable bullpen — blew up in his face.

That wasn’t the first time that’s happened. In fact, the Tigers have had as much trouble with the seventh inning (60 runs allowed) — the role Soria will fill initially — as the ninth (63 runs) this season.

And it likely won’t be the last for Ausmus, who was forced to lean too heavily on Al Alburquerque (48 appearances, one shy of the AL lead) and Chamberlain (45) in the season’s first half, with Nathan, Phil Coke and Ian Krol struggling.

The first-year manager recently admitted as much, saying the hardest part of his new job had been “keeping my eye on the big picture.”

Still, that’s what this trade is all about.

Ausmus has options

The Tigers, with third-best record in the American League, have as good a chance to win the pennant as any team right now. And with a 6.5-game division lead entering Thursday night’s game at Anaheim, this deal is more about the big picture — the postseason — than anything else.

Soria, with his ridiculous K/BB ratio, probably won’t pitch more than 20 innings the rest of the regular season. But if he’s as dependable in Detroit as he was in Texas the past two years — and in Kansas City earlier in his career — he could be Detroit’s 2014 version of Koji Uehara, who played a starring role in Boston’s World Series run a year ago.

As Ausmus, in a different context, explained it the other day, “You try to win the game, try to win the battle, but you have to win the war.”

The Tigers are better armed to do just that now. But the manager will play a critical role, too, as they try to close this deal.



Tigers manager Brad Ausmus has more options available in the bullpen. Finding the right mix, though, could be tricky. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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