Texas acquires pitching prospects Thompson, Knebel for veteran right-hander
By Jason Beck
ANAHEIM -- After nearly two months of scouting, weeks of rumors and surely no shortage of talks, the Tigers made their move for a reliever late Wednesday night. In Joakim Soria, they got arguably the best option available on the trade market.
The cost wasn't cheap. To get the deal done, the Tigers sent the Rangers two of their top five prospects in sinkerballing starter Jake Thompson (ranked third, according to MLB.com) and former University of Texas closer Corey Knebel (fifth). In acquiring Soria, however, Detroit addressed by far its biggest concern heading toward the postseason, and an issue that was becoming bigger by the day.
Soria recorded 17 saves and posted a 2.70 ERA in 35 appearances for Texas this season. He has struck out 42 and walked just four in 33 1/3 innings while lowering his WHIP from 1.35 last season to 0.87 in 2014, two years after he underwent Tommy John surgery.
Prospects acquired by Rangers
Corey Knebel, RHP: Knebel was the closer at the University of Texas before the Tigers drafted him 39th overall in 2013. They believed he had the stuff to start, but the Texas native was so dominant out of the bullpen during his professional debut that they scrapped those plans and fast-tracked him as a reliever. Knebel made his big league debut in May and made eight appearances for the Tigers before the deal. He struck out 11 batters and walked three in 8 2/3 innings with Detroit, posting a 6.23 ERA. He comes right after hitters with his fastball, which sits around 95 mph, and a sharp curveball. He has all the tools necessary to become a late-innings reliever in the Major Leagues.
Jake Thompson, RHP: The Tigers lost their first-round pick in 2012 when they signed Prince Fielder, making Thompson their top pick in the Draft that year. The hard-throwing Texas native has moved quickly in the Minor Leagues, reaching Double-A Erie as a 20-year-old this summer. Before his promotion, Thompson earned an All-Star nod in the Florida State League and went 6-4 with a 3.14 ERA and struck out 79 batters in 83 innings with Class A Advanced Lakeland. His fastball, curveball and changeup all have the potential to become at least Major League-average offerings, and his control has taken a step forward year. Thompson's size and stuff give him the look of a prototypical right-hander, and he should develop into a solid big league starter in time.
The Tigers know Soria well, having watched him finish off games as a closer for the Royals from 2007-11. He will not take over the closer role in Detroit -- at least not at this point -- instead serving as setup man to Joe Nathan in a reunion of their late-inning situation in Texas last year.
"Nathan is our closer," Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said in an email to MLB.com on Wednesday evening.
Soria appears ready for whichever role he's asked to fill.
"It's a good team that is a contender," Soria said of the Tigers. "I haven't talked to them yet, but they're going to be my new family. I am going to do everything they need me to do. I want to help them get to the World Series."
While Nathan has struggled mightily in his first season in Detroit, the Tigers have had just as big of an issue carrying leads from their starters to the ninth inning for him to handle. Joba Chamberlain has been a savior as the club's eighth-inning setup man, filling the void left by Bruce Rondon's season-ending right elbow injury, but there's been little to no consistency beyond Chamberlain.
The Tigers entered Wednesday having posted a 6.30 ERA and allowed a .305 opponents' average and .842 on-base plus slugging percentage in the ninth inning this season. Their seventh-inning stats, however, are nearly as unsightly: a 5.10 ERA, .271 average and .745 OPS. Two-thirds of that seventh-inning damage came from Tigers relievers, including Ian Krol, Al Alburquerque and Phil Coke.
First-year manager Brad Ausmus has leaned heavily on Chamberlain, Alburquerque and Krol to protect leads, resulting in all three being on pace for career highs in games pitched. With Soria on board for the eighth, Chamberlain and others not only can handle more seventh-inning situations, they can be used more judiciously.
Both Thompson and Knebel are Texas natives. Thompson, in particular, grew up a Rangers fan and met current Tiger Ian Kinsler when the second baseman was with the Rangers and Thompson was in high school.
The 20-year-old Thompson was the Tigers' top Draft pick in 2012, going in the second round. This was the year, however, that he rose through the Tigers' system to become the club's next highly touted starting-pitching prospect, ranked behind only Robbie Ray.
Thompson went 6-4 with a 3.14 ERA at Class A Advanced Lakeland, earning a spot in this year's SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game in Minnesota, then a promotion to Double-A Erie. He pitched six quality innings in his SeaWolves debut, then picked up the win on Wednesday afternoon with five innings of one-run ball.
The more impressive numbers, however, lie in Thompson's ability to keep the ball on the ground. He has allowed just three home runs in 94 innings this year, and eight homers in 205 2/3 innings as a pro. He has hit more than twice as many batters (19, including seven this season).
Knebel was selected in Competitive Balance Round A -- No. 39 overall -- last year, and he quickly hit the fast track to the big leagues. After impressing in Class A and the Arizona Fall League last summer, the 22-year-old went 4-1 with a 1.62 ERA between Erie and Triple-A Toledo, allowing just 14 hits over 33 1/3 innings with 17 walks and 43 strikeouts.
Knebel made his Major League debut on May 24 and appeared in eight games over two stints for the Tigers this season, posting a 6.23 ERA and recording 11 strikeouts against three walks and 11 hits in 8 2/3 innings.
Knebel was warming in the Tigers' bullpen during the late innings of Wednesday's 11-5 win at Arizona. Add in the fact that Thompson pitched on Wednesday in front of scouts for two teams, including the Phillies, and the Tigers apparently didn't reach an agreement on the trade until later in the day.
The way the market has moved this summer, however, the price on Soria likely wasn't going down, leaving Detroit with the choice of paying the price or moving on to others on the market. Former Tiger-turned-Padres reliever Joaquin Benoit was a rumored target, as was Houston closer Chad Qualls. Moreover, the Tigers hold a club option on Soria for next season at $7 million, thus shoring up their bullpen for 2015 as well.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.