DETROIT — Is a bird in the hand worth two in the bushes?
We shall find out because that question strikes at the essence of what the Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers consummated with their Wednesday night trade.
Detroit acquired a closer of some renown, Joakim Soria, for two highly acclaimed pitchers in the bushes.
Technically, Corey Knebel wasn’t in the bush leagues (a.k.a. minor leagues) because he’d been recalled this week from Toledo by the Tigers. But Jake Thompson had only recently gotten as high as Double-A Erie, which qualifies as the bushes.
Recent history tells us the Tigers have done pretty well in going for the bird in hand.
Remember how you winced when Detroit sent two great prospects — pitcher Andrew Miller and center fielder Cameron Maybin — to the Florida Marlins in the eight-player trade that brought Miguel Cabrera to town? You knew Cabrera was a legit force, but you also believed Miller and Maybin could come back to haunt.
Well, they never did.
And remember when Detroit got starter Doug Fister and reliever David Pauley from Seattle for pitchers Charlie Furbush and Chance Ruffin, outfielder Casper Wells and third baseman Francisco Martinez? Those were four top prospects going to the Mariners, but none of them has become someone the Tigers regrets dealing since that trade in 2011.
Fister became a great rotation addition that helped the Tigers to their three consecutive Central Division titles. He went 32-20 with a 3.29 ERA in two and a half years with Detroit before inexplicably getting traded to the Washington Nationals and upgrading his numbers to 9-2 with a 2.92 ERA this season.
None of the three players obtained for Fister — Toledo pitcher Robbie Ray, Tigers reliever Ian Krol and utility infielder Steve Lombardozzi (since traded) — has proven to be worth the price at this point.
Last, but hardly least, is the 2012 mid-season deal for top-notch second baseman Omar Infante, 2013 American League earned-run-average leader Anibal Sanchez and a compensation pick between the first and second rounds for pitching prospect Jacob Turner, catching prospect Rob Brantly and left-hander Brian Flynn.
Turner is the only one with the Marlins, and he’s 3-6 with a 6.03 ERA. He was supposedly a can’t-miss, top-of-the-rotation starter.
So there’s a pattern here that’s beyond obvious. Prospects are just that. They have proven nothing. Always take the sure talent — particularly if you’re trying to win a World Series.
Might this trade come back and bite the Tigers? It could, but I doubt it will be any worse than a wash.
More likely, it will be another winning deal for Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski, who engineered all those other trades we just recalled.
Corey Knebel — who incredibly was drafted 39th overall last year as that compensation pick that came with Infante and Sanchez — has been brilliant in the bushes. But he has a 6.23 ERA in his brief time with the Tigers.
Although Knebel does throw mid-90’s fastballs, they have little movement on them. That could keep him from ever becoming something special.
Jake Thompson struck out both batters faced in the Futures Game last week and has been impressive with Lakeland and Erie this season. Will he end up making the Rangers the winners in this deal? Only time will tell.
There’s no guesswork, however, where Joakim Soria is concerned.
It’s true that in April 2012 Soria, 30, had his second Tommy John surgery. It’s also true that he’s no worse for the wear and pitching as well as ever.
His 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings this season is second only to his 11.7 in 2009 for the Kansas City Royals.
His average fastball velocity, according to Brooks Baseball, is 91.2 mph. His peak velocity season was 2007, when he was at 92.0 mph.
And Soria’s 42 strikeouts and four walks in 33 1/3 innings are outstanding numbers — particularly for a late-inning reliever.
Soria has a 2.70 ERA and is 17-for-19 in save opportunities with a nifty 0.87 WHIP.
He’s very capable of having a year close to the one he had in 2010 for the Royals. Soria that season had 43 saves, a 1.78 ERA and 1.05 WHIP while finishing 10th in Cy Young Award and 19th in AL MVP voting.
Better yet, Detroit has to pay him only a prorated portion of a $5.5 million deal the rest of this year. If they like what they see, the Tigers will have him at $7 million in 2015. If not, they pay him $500,000 to go away.
There’s very little not to like about Soria, a two-time All-Star with 177 career saves. He’s a bird in hand and makes perfect sense for a team that has believed that the future is now since 2006.
It’s a formula that has been worked to perfection by Dombrowski.