TONY PAUL

Paul: Joakim Soria's future, like his season, in limbo

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Tigers didn't know what to do with Joakim Soria during the season. So it should come as no surprise they still don't know what do to with him moving forward.

The team hasn't yet decided whether to exercise a $7 million option on Soria for 2015. It has until a few days after the conclusion of the World Series to make up its mind. Interestingly, back in July, this was a slam-dunk decision, and one that would've been made by now — pick it up! — but not as much now, given the way the season played out.

Soria was overly eager to join the Tigers in a playoff race this season, and just as excited to reunite with good friend and his old teammate in Texas, Joe Nathan. But what materialized was nothing short of a disaster, as the Tigers never settled on a plan to use Soria, then used him infrequently — which may or may not have led to his oblique injury — before throwing him into the fire during the playoffs.

Soria pitched twice in the American League Division Series, once with the Tigers up and once with the Tigers down — and both times, he entered to clean up Joba Chamberlain's mess.

It totally blew up in the Tigers face, and a source close to Soria says the veteran reliever feels absolutely devastated that he let Tigers fans down.

But Tigers fans are a smart bunch. They know Tigers brass shares in the blame here, in a big way.

Role confusion

When Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski acquired Soria, 30, from the Rangers, in exchange for the Tigers' top two pitching prospects, he did so knowing Soria could provide protection at closer should Nathan not get his act together. But even when Nathan struggled down the stretch, and even when Joba Chamberlain scuffled pretty much all second half, Soria couldn't crack the late-inning, high-leverage rotation.

After Soria arrived in Detroit, he was used infrequently, and for the first three outings, when the Tigers were trailing. It wasn't a role he was used to, and predictably he struggled.

The next three outings, he was used late in the game, and when the game was close, and he thrived. That is, until Aug. 9 in Toronto, when Soria got Nathan off the hook in the ninth inning to keep it a tie game, and then was sent back out by manager Brad Ausmus for the 10th. That's when Soria, who hadn't pitched in four days and wasn't at all used to coming out for a second inning, suffered a side-muscle strain that would land him on the disabled list for a month.

Whether it's all related — the infrequent use, the rare second inning and the side injury — nobody can say for certain, but it is at least a bit curious.

Soria returned to the Tigers bullpen the second week of September, and team brass at first, understandably, was cautious with how he was used, given the nature of the injury. But he pitched well down the stretch, not allowing a run in his last six appearances, several of those the high-leverage situations he was accustomed to over the years with the Royals, then the Rangers — giving Tigers fans some hope the bullpen might finally be coming together just in time.

But just like the Tigers probably should've gotten Anibal Sanchez more work in the final week, so his pitch count could've been more than 35 in the postseason, Soria didn't get much work late, either. He never pitched in the regular season's final three games, and thus ended up having a whole week off before Game 1 of the ALDS. And we all know what happened in Games 1 and 2, after Soria was called upon to enter with runners on in the eighth inning.

Now, it's not entirely on the Tigers. Soria is an All-Star-caliber pitcher, one with some of the best numbers in baseball when the Tigers traded for him. He has a job to do, regardless of the situation. And to be clear, a source in the know dismissed any such rumblings that Soria was still injured.

But pitchers, more than most athletes, are severe creatures of habits, specifically relievers. And the Tigers never found a role for Soria — leading to a lack of work, which might've caused Soria to get rusty and, even worse, lose the confidence that had been swelling the first three months of the season in Arlington.

It's not clear who was calling the shots on this front, whether it was Ausmus or Dombrowski. Dombrowski did tell The News late in the season that Ausmus is the manager, so he has the authority to use players he sees fits. But Dombrowski also was the guy who signed Nathan and Chamberlain this offseason, so he certainly had a stake in them panning out as a dynamic eighth- and ninth-inning duo. It's also very possible Ausmus was turned off by Soria's first two-thirds of an inning with Detroit, a total dud, and if that's the case, shame on a guy that bright relying on such a miniscule sample size.

In a bind

Question is, what do the Tigers do now?

All signs point to Chamberlain pitching elsewhere next year. He pitched well enough to get a multi-year deal somewhere, but poor enough late to lose the Tigers' interest.

That opens up the eighth inning, which seemingly could be the fit for Soria, working ahead of Nathan — as they did so beautifully in Texas in 2013. But, remember, there's also Bruce Rondon, expected back late in the spring from Tommy John surgery, as well as a heavy market of free-agent relievers the Tigers are almost certain to explore.

Odds are, the Tigers pick up Soria's option. They know he's better than he pitched for them. Problem is, there might not be mutual interest here. Given how Soria was used — I'll say it, misused — nobody would blame Soria's camp if they're hoping the option gets declined. And if it's picked up, nobody would blame Soria's agent, Oscar Suarez, if he demanded a trade unless the sides can actually agree on a somewhat-defined role.

Either scenario, a declined option or Soria and Co. playing the "Get out of Jail Free" card, would leave egg all over Dombrowski's face, given he parted with stud pitching prospects Corey Knebel and Jake Thompson to get Soria.

And that would only add to the mess that that played out in October — a mess, by the way, Dombrowski hasn't taken questions about, since, oddly, there's been no end-of-season debriefing with the media, as is customary.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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