The Tigers’ trade of Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler freed considerable future payroll but did mean giving up the better player. Detroit’s shipment of starter Doug Fister to the Nationals for a package of three players was viewed skeptically, though general manager David Dombrowski should have the benefit of the doubt given his excellent track record in trades. With that said, trading Fister appeared more like a salary dump than an equal exchange of player value, which is a curious move for a contender.
The unambiguously positive move, however, was the signing of free-agent closer Joe Nathan, a moved formally announced on Wednesday. For two straight Octobers, Detroit has been plagued by a porous bullpen with too few dependable late-inning relievers. They ranked 24th in the majors during the regular season with a 4.01 bullpen ERA.
The back of the Tigers’ bullpen was a revolving door last year. Phil Coke, Jose Valverde and Bruce Rondon all failed to fill the ninth-inning void before Joaquin Benoit exceled in the job -- but only during the regular season. Though he had a 2.01 ERA through September, Benoit allowed four runs in 5 2/3 innings of October work and now is a free agent anyway.
Nathan, though he turned 39 last month, is coming off one of his finest seasons as a major leaguer. He had 43 saves, a 1.39 ERA and 0.90 WHIP as the Rangers’ closer; all three of those figures were top-10 in the majors among pitchers with at least 60 innings. Nathan is clearly well past his Tommy John surgery that cost him all of 2010 and led to a poor 2011, before he rebounded nicely in ’12 and ’13.
The Tigers still need to add at least one and ideally two or three more impact arms for the bullpen, but Nathan is an excellent start to repairing the unit that has lost Benoit to free agency and could lose Drew Smyly to the rotation. The reported terms of the deal are two years for about $10 million per season, with an option for a third year, and while some regression is expected -- even Craig Kimbrel can’t be expected to sustain a 1.39 ERA at any age, much less at 40 like Nathan -- he should provide plenty of value to Detroit. And, given that Nathan has never advanced even as far as the ALCS, much less the World Series, in his long career, the Tigers -- who have been reached the ALCS in back-to-back seasons and ought to be in the mix again next year -- should help him too.