Tigers' Joakim Soria excited to have a defined role

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Joakim Soria came to the Tigers in a trade for prospects Corey Knebel and Jake Thompson.

San Diego -- Surprised by Joakim Soria's performance last year?

It can't possibly compare to the shock for Soria, himself.

"It was something different in my career," the veteran reliever told The Detroit News this week. "I've never had that type of a slump.

"It was really tough."

Very little went right for Soria in a Tigers uniform after coming over from the Rangers in July -- in a big trade that was supposed to be a significant step in fixing Detroit's bullpen woes for the stretch run and into the playoffs.

But it didn't work. At all.

Soria struggled early as a Tiger, then missed a month with an oblique injury, before struggling mightily in the first two games of a three-game sweep by the Orioles in the American League Division Series. That's dwelling, though. And Soria doesn't dwell.

He's a naturally upbeat person -- more likely to be seen on the moon than saying something negative, about anybody or anything -- and while the postseason was crushing for him, it's over now.

"We have to learn from things we go through," he said over the phone from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz. "These things make you stronger."

Those words are music to the ears of the Tigers, who are counting tremendously on Soria, the two-time All-Star, for a bounce-back 2015. So much so that they haven't gone seriously shopping for late-innings relief, confident Joe Nathan and Soria can bounce back, and that Bruce Rondon will be ready to roll following spring Tommy John surgery.

Suddenly going south

Nobody can really pinpoint why things went south so suddenly once Soria switched uniforms last summer. He made a case to be an All-Star as the Rangers closer, with the makings of just the latest great season for a guy who's had a handful of them in his seven years in the major leagues.

Last season, Joakim Soria had a 2.70 ERA with Texas, 4.91 with Detroit.

It was his success in Texas -- 42 strikeouts to just four walks in 33.2 innings -- that made Tigers brass plenty comfortable parting with two blue-chip pitching prospects, Corey Knebel and Jake Thompson, to add Soria.

But his Detroit debut was rough, his second game was even worse, and his third was no gem. And two weeks later, after limited action, he was on the shelf with an oblique injury.

"Sometimes you just don't know why," manager Brad Ausmus said, asked for a reason -- any reason -- Soria's surprising troubles.

Was he concealing the oblique injury that eventually knocked him out? Soria's camp says no way.

"You never know," Ausmus said. "Players that want to compete will hide certain aches and pains."

But, officially, the Tigers seem to be filing it in the fluke file -- Soria just wasn't executing, for whatever reason.

"Usually pitchers, position players, they're gonna go through a point in time that they scuffle," Ausmus said. "Now, if it happens in May and June, it's long forgotten if they're pitching well in September. But if the guy pitches well for five months and struggles going into the pennant chase or even in the playoffs, well then it stands out.

"You really have to look at the whole body of work. Sometimes the timing of the slump is more detrimental than the slump itself."

Soria, 30, isn't going to make excuses for what happened.

But there are theories out there. For starters, he'd never been traded mid-season. That's a big adjustment, and while fans think players are robots who can handle anything, it's simply not so.

The bigger issue probably was this: The Tigers, amazingly, never appeared to have a plan for Soria when they acquired him. He's had a defined role all his life -- mostly as a closer for the Royals, and later, after Tommy John surgery that cost him the 2012 season, the Rangers, plus one year as a setup man -- but in Detroit, he was neither. Nathan was the closer and Joba Chamberlain was the setup man. That never changed, despite their struggles at times, particularly Chamberlain's in the second half.

Makes you wonder

He's also not used to entering the game in the middle of an inning, but the Tigers asked him to do that, including both times he pitched in the postseason.

One of those times, at least, it paid off -- well, for a moment. In a tie game in the ninth inning in Toronto on Aug. 9, he entered and got the Tigers out of the jam. But he asked to start the 10th inning, and when he was warming up, that's when the oblique injury happened. There's no evidence to prove the injury was related to coming out for the second inning of work, or if it was tied to him getting up and down in the bullpen multiple times. But you have to wonder.

It all put a serious damper on the trade, which Soria said he embraced from the moment he got the call July 23, boarded a flight in New York and joined his new teammates in Anaheim, Calif.

"It was exciting, being in the playoffs, being in a contending team," Soria said. "It was a good experience for my career.

"The worst part was when I got hurt."

Joakim Soria: "You have to move on to the next step, prepare yourself for the next season."

Soria missed exactly a month, returned to the mound Sept. 10, and actually pitched well down the stretch. But he was used sparingly and cautiously in September, and by the time the playoffs rolled around, he'd been idle for a week.

Soria entered with runners on base in the eighth inning of Games 1 and 2 in the ALDS, and the results, well, you know.

The Tigers defend his use in coming back from injury, saying the American League Central race was too close till the end to just automatically put Soria in every other game to get him some work. The games were playoff-deciding games, not Grapefruit League games. The case was the same with rehabbing Anibal Sanchez, who then wasn't stretched out enough to go a third inning in Game 2 of the ALDS.

"I don't think we saw the real Joakim Soria," Ausmus said.

So what's going to be different in 2015?

This, for starters: Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said Soria will have a defined role, and it'll probably be the eighth inning -- unless Nathan has a rough time again, and Soria has to slide into the closer's role. Soria hasn't talked to the Tigers about this, but is pleased to hear that plan.

"I can tell you, if that happens, I was a closer before I set up," he said. "Having a good inning is what I've been doing my whole career."

'You have to move on'

When the Tigers traded for Soria, they did so knowing they had a team-friendly $7 million option on him for 2015. Like the trade for David Price did for their 2015 rotation, the Soria acquisition gave protection for the 2015 bullpen. And so the option looked like a sure pickup July 23. It didn't look as easy in October. But the Tigers were never going to decline it.

"I know I've had quite a few general managers say to me, 'I wish you wouldn't have picked up his option,'" Dombrowski said at the winter meetings.

While the adjustment to Detroit was tough, given the crazy travel involved on the day of the trade plus moving his family -- wife Karla and two young kids -- to Detroit and finding a house, plus the results, Soria is excited to be back. He said he enjoyed the city. He really enjoyed the fans, even if that wasn't always mutual. He also likes his teammates, particularly Nathan, who took Soria under his wing during his first All-Star Game, in 2008 at Yankee Stadium. They've been friends since, and were teammates in 2013 in Texas.

That's what Soria likes to focus on. Not the negative stuff.

"You have to move on," said Soria, who splits his offseason between Scottsdale and Monclova, Coahuila, Mexico.

He's fully healthy, and has been working out relentlessly for a month -- with a regimen including running up Phoenix's Camelback Mountain.

"You have to move on to the next step, prepare yourself for the next season," he said. "I've been working very hard. I have to learn from what happened and just move forward and try to do better next year."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/tonypaul1984