Posted July 29, 2013

Division leaders bolster bullpens as Tigers get Jose Veras, Braves get Scott Downs

Atlanta Braves, Detroit Tigers, Houston Astros, Jose Veras, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Scott Downs
Closer Jose Veras had a 2.93 ERA in 42 appearances for the Astros this season. (AP)

Closer Jose Veras had a 2.93 ERA in 42 appearances for the Astros this season. (AP)

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.

The cost for Downs was Cory Rasmus, the 25-year-old righty reliever and brother of Blue Jays’ center fielder Colby. Rasmus throws in the mid-90s and has some posted some impressive strikeout rates in the minors, but he has undermined those with similarly high walk rates, walking 5.1 men per nine innings in Double-A and Triple-A over the last two seasons, his first two as a full-time reliever. He’s a live arm close to exhausting his development time. In return for two months of a 37-year-old reliever, that was about all the Angels could have expected and an easy price for the Braves to pay.

James C
James C

Detroit did not need to fill either the closer role or the set-up roll. Benoit and Smyly are doing fine in both roles. What Detroit needed to do was add depth to a very young bullpen that includes Phil " I can't get anyone out" Coke. The question is what do they do with the Veras, Benoit and Smyly now? A perfect world says Vera goes to the closer role, Benoit back to the 8th and Smyly to his previous role as a long relieve? I think a better use would be (right now) Benoit stays closing, Smyly stays in the set-up role, and Veras fills in when either one needs a day out of the rotation. 

Detroit has one of the best starting 5's in baseball. When JV could be argued as the #4 or #5 guy right now on the team, that is a good thing. Porcello's ERA is high, but if you look carefully, two starts have really accounted for the majority of that. If you take away Porcello's two starts vs the Angels, his ERA is 3.35.  Those two terrible starts in which he gave up 9 and 7 runs account for over 28% of the Earned Runs allowed this season. 

Detroit simply needs to have the starters go their 6 or 7 strong innings, and have a crew in the pen that can hold the lead. I still think they need an additional experienced situational l pitcher out there because I have ZERO confidence in using Coke for anything other than a 10 run lead situation, where even if he gives up 4 or 5 you are still safe.