Some players take a long time to heal. When Joakim Soria signed with the Texas Rangers in the 2012-2013 offseason, they knew they might get little from him in his first season. Relievers can typically be counted on to return within 12 months from Tommy John surgery and Soria was recovering from surgery on April 3, 2012 — but Soria had been down a similar road before.
Soria originally signed as an amateur free agent out of Mexico with the Dodgers at the end of 2001. After one year in Rookie League ball, Soria needed Tommy John surgery in April 2002 — and with Soria slow to recover, he was released by the Dodgers in October 2004 without having pitched in a professional game for more than two years. Soria didn't sign with another major league organization until December 2005, but he did so well with the Padres in Single-A and in the Mexican League that he was selected by the Royals in the Rule 5 Draft the following December. The rest, as they say, is history: four fantastic seasons as the Royals closer with FIP marks between 2.50 and 3.25 (and ERAs between 1.60 and 2.48, if you're into that sort of thing).
Soria was frequently in trade rumors before the 2012 season, but wasn't moved before his elbow injury and second Tommy John surgery. He rehabbed with the Royals for the balance of the 2012 season, but Kansas City opted to pay a $750,000 buyout instead of exercising a $8 million option for 2013.
When the Rangers then picked him up on a two-year deal for a guaranteed $8 million, they may have been very conscious of Soria's past struggles in returning from Tommy John surgery. The guaranteed money in Soria's contract was backloaded to 2014, and it did in fact take Soria until July 7, 2013 pitch in the bigs.
Soria's 2013 was his worst MLB season per FIP (3.68) in just 23.2 innings, but this season, Soria has regained his form. As in, a 1.07 FIP.
The big change? Walk rate. Soria clearly struggled with control in 2013, posting a walk rate (5.32 BB/9) almost double his previous high (2.72 BB/9 in 2009). This year, Soria's walk rate in 33.1 innings is far and away the best of his career: 1.08 BB/9. That's third-best among 149 qualified relievers, behind just Sean Doolittle (0.59 BB/9) and Chad Qualls (1.02 BB/9). Most might agree nonetheless that in nabbing Soria, the Tigers are getting a better reliever than Qualls.
The Tigers will hope for a better return on their Soria deal than they got in hiring Joe Nathan away from the Rangers over the offseason — but that's quite possible. Nathan was coming off of a stellar 2013 in which he posted a 2.78 FIP when he joined the Tigers. Soria's FIP so far this year is 1.07.
In fact, FIP tells us that the Tigers are getting the reliever with the very most success this year — only one other reliever has a FIP below 1.50 (Jake McGee, 1.30). But what did they give up?
Texas Rangers acquire RHP Jake Thompson and RHP Corey Knebel
When Beyond the Box Score's Chris St. John compared prospect rankings to put together his consensus top prospects for the Tigers, Thompson ranked 4th, Knebel 6th. Thompson was only recently promoted to Double-A, and may be unlikely to see the majors before the beginning of 2016. Knebel has seen some major league time, but probably not enough to put him on a Super-Two track; and at any rate, the Rangers can control Knebel through at least the 2020 season.
I'm not going to pretend to be a prospects guy, but it seems that many think Thompson has a solid shot to be a solid #4 starter, even though he's shown up on zero Top 100 prospect lists. Thanks to Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers, we have a way to value a guy like that, since he sold David Holmberg (a finesse lefty, but one with a similar ceiling to Thompson) for $5.5 million last December.
Knebel was only just eligible to be traded, having celebrated a one-year anniversary with the Tigers org earlier this season. Knebel got hammered in 8.2 major league innings earlier this season (.623 ERA), but a .440 BABIP and good peripherals make the struggles unlikely to continue. A reliever throughout his short professional career, Knebel has posted ERAs under 2.00 at every stop in the minors since Rookie ball — with FIP marks that make those numbers seem reasonable. The best case scenario for Knebel seems to be something similar to the Indians' Bryan Shaw.
Detroit Tigers acquire RHP Joakim Soria
Soria is not strictly a rental for the Tigers, who are hopeful of making some noise in October. In addition to a prorated portion of Soria's $5.5 million salary for this season, the Tigers will owe Soria at least a $500,000 buyout on a 2015 option. Should the option for 2015 stay at $7 million, it would seem like a no-brainer that the Tigers would exercise it, especially considering the two year, $20 million deal they gave to Joe Nathan just last offseason.
But the option may not be $7 million at the season's end. With 55 games finished (GF), the option is due to increase to $8 million (and the buyout to $750,000), and Soria currently stands at 32, with a very real shot at eclipsing the 55 GF threshold by season's end. Either way, the Tigers likely believe that Soria's contract has surplus value for 2015 as well as this year.
Given Soria's injury history, there's every reason to think that his 2014 performance is more indicative of his true talent level than his 2013 (or 2011). Considering that, his obvious excellence this season, his relatively low salaries, and the fact that he could soak up a high percentage of postseason innings, and trading Soria for Thompson and Knebel seems good for Texas and very reasonable for Detroit.
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Ryan P. Morrison is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score, and co-author of Inside the 'Zona, a site on the Arizona Diamondbacks with a sabermetrics slant. You can follow him on Twitter: @InsidetheZona.