Two division leaders with well-established needs for bullpen help got their men on Monday as the Tigers traded for Astros closer Jose Veras and the Braves traded for Angels left-hander Scott Downs with just two days remaining before Wednesday afternoon's non-waiver trading deadline.
Observers have been waiting for the Tigers to trade for a closer seemingly since incumbent Jose Valverde had the job taken away during last year's American League Championship series. The team opted not to resign the free agent Valverde and entered spring training hoping that rookie fireballer Bruce Rondon would claim the vacant role, but Rondon didn't fulfill those expectations and Valverde was brought back on a minor league deal on April 4 and was back saving games for Detroit by April 24.
That didn't last. Valverde blew three of his nine save chances after May 10, posted a 13.50 ERA in his last eight appearances for the Tigers, allowing six home runs in 7 1/3 innings, and was designated for assignment on June 21.
Joaquin Benoit has been closing games for the Tigers since, converting ten saves for the Tigers this season without blowing one in either the closing or set-up roles and posting a 0.53 ERA across 17 innings since June 7. However, Tigers manager Jim Leyland has expressed the need to give the 36-year-old Benoit regular rest. Still, with Octavio Dotel possibly out for the season with an elbow injury, Al Alburquerque struggling (a Valverde-like 13.50 ERA in 7 1/3 innings over his last seven appearances), and Rondon yet to establish himself in the majors (he has allowed runs in seven of his 15 appearances this season, including each of his last three), Leyland has had few alternatives as well as a hole in Benoit's now vacated right-handed set-up role. The 32-year-old Veras, who has excelled as a closer for the Astros this year but had pitched primarily in set-up roles prior to this season, is exactly what the Tigers needed.
The cost was 19-year-old Venezuelan left-fielder Danry Vasquez, who was the team's fourth-best prospect coming into the season, according to Baseball Prospectus, and a player to be named later. Vasquez is a lottery ticket whose payoff depends largely on his bat. Though tall and lanky, he's not fast and he doesn't have a strong arm. He is a left-fielder and will have to hit like one, but hasn't thus far, batting .281/.330/.390 in a repeat of the in the Class-A Midwest League with just five home runs in 420 plate appearances. Vasquez won't be 20 until January and thus has a ton of development time left and is well-regarded, but the Tigers are a defending pennant winner trying to win a championship. It's hard to criticize this trade from their side given how perfectly Veras fits their needs and that he has a cheap, $3.25 million option for next year with a tiny $150,000 buyout, nor from the Astros side given that Veras is a 32-year-old first-time closer who wasn't going to be a part of the next winning Astros team.
The Braves, meanwhile, lost their top two left-handed relievers to Tommy John surgery this season, with both Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty having the procedure in May, leaving 24-year-old sophomore Luis Avilan as their only left-handed reliever. Avilan has excelled this season, holding lefties to a .130/.211/.159 line and being nearly as hard on righties while inducing a ton of groundballs with his low-90s sinker, but his peripherals and lack of track record suggest the Braves were wise not to put all of their left-handed eggs in his basket.
Downs, who will also be a free agent this winter, has been one of the best left-handed relievers in baseball over the last seven seasons, posting a 2.27 ERA and 1.16 WHIP over that span while holding lefties to a .195/.263/.274 line and holding his own against righties (.245/.314/.347). The 37-year-old has been solid as usual this season (1.84 ERA, LHH hitting .196/.255/.216) and could prove to be a key pitcher for the Braves in the playoffs. For example, if the playoff started today, the Braves would face the Dodgers in the division series and Downs would be very useful against lefties Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and especially Andre Ethier.