Detroit Tigers: Fister trade a problem

When news of the Detroit Tigers’ trade of Doug Fister first hit, that’s all we knew. The return package wasn’t confirmed until several minutes later. During the interim, fans were excited by the possibilities that the Washington Nationals could have sent to Detroit. And then they found out.

The Tigers got three young players for one top pitcher in his prime. Steve Lombardozzi, 25, is the only tried and true Major League piece, and he is a weak-hitting middle infielder with defensive versatility that will essentially replace Ramon Santiago’s spot on the roster. Did anyone else consider that a top offseason priority?

Steve Lombardozzi, Detroit Tigers

Steve Lombardozzi

The Tigers also acquired two left-handed pitchers. Reliever Ian Krol, 22, made his big league debut for the Nats last year by pitching in 32 games as a reliever. He posted a 3.95 ERA and an elevated 1.32 WHIP. He did hold left-handed hitters to a .220 batting average against and just a .273 on-base % but had little success against righties (.304 avg., .350 OBP). A lefty specialist is what the Tigers are hoping they got here. In parts of five minor league seasons, Krol collected a 3.48 ERA and 246 K’s to just 63 walks in 274.1 innings. He could be an asset for years to come in Detroit, or he could flame out like so many other relievers do.

The key to the trade from GM Dave Dombrowski’s perspective seems to be Robbie Ray. Ray, 22, was considered the 5th best prospect in the Nationals’ organization. He topped out at AA Harrisburg in 2013 and figures to start with AA Erie or AAA Toledo in the Tigers’ system. Dombrowski believes Ray is “knocking on the door” and Detroit could certainly use some rotation depth in their system.

Ray recovered from a brutal 2012 season (6.56 ERA, 1.62 WHIP) to put up a respectable 2013 where he was 11-5 with a 3.36 ERA and 1.25 WHIP. He is a legit strikeout pitcher who also battles occasional command problems. Sniff, sniff – please tell me that smell isn’t Casey Crosby and Andy Oliver all over again.

If Ray is the key, then this little nugget from ESPN’s minor league expert Keith Law won’t provide any comfort: Ray is the prospect, a potential back-end starter who shows four pitches but has nothing plus, although there’s some upside here if the Tigers can get him to lengthen his stride. His sharpest pitch is his spike curveball, but like most pitches of that type it usually ends up out of the zone, and his changeup is fringy enough that he’s had trouble finishing off right-handed hitters. He’s a project, a guy with some value but who could use some mechanical adjustments.

Law sees Ray as a ‘potential back-end starter’ at best with no true plus pitches. Uh oh.

Law’s final analysis of the trade was basically the same as mine: A lefty reliever, a backup at second and a non-top-100 prospect is just not a good return for two years of one of the top 30 starters in baseball.

When the Tigers traded Prince Fielder and his huge contract away for Ian Kinsler, it was clear that the motives were both short and long-term financial flexibility. But from a baseball perspective, the trade standing alone didn’t improve the roster. Dombrowski made it two for two last night.

Ian Krol, Detroit Tigers

Ian Krol

The bullpen, arguably the #1 offseason priority, is now weaker due to the likely shift of Drew Smyly to the starting rotation. Lombardozzi isn’t a starter, and merely replaces Ramon Santiago at a cheaper rate. Lombo has a career .264 average and pathetic .297 on-base % covering 755 big league plate appearances. Pitchers like Krol are a shot in the dark and often times a dime a dozen. Again, he comes cheap as he’ll make just the league minimum in 2014, if he sticks.

Ray might be a part of the rotation in two years. And then again it’s possible the Nats just dumped him off on the Tigers when his value was at its peak.

One thing is for certain and that is we should always give Dave Dombrowski the benefit of the doubt when it comes to trades. He has been money in the bank more often than not. But his money has often been made in trading for known Major League commodities (Fister, Miguel Cabrera, Omar Infante, Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, etc.), not in plucking prospects on the verge of stardom from other teams. The closest he has come to that as Tigers GM is when he got Austin Jackson from the Yankees, and some would argue that Jackson hasn’t panned out so well.

Did Dombrowski find a few diamonds in the rough? Perhaps. Did he trade a bona fide big league starter who should’ve commanded a huge package in return? Absolutely. He promises that this is not a salary dump but so far that’s exactly what it has been. Surely the next move will knock our socks off, right?

Detroit still needs a closer, preferably Joe Nathan. To me, they also need another bullpen arm, preferably a stud lefty like JP Howell, although the re-signing of Coke and addition of Krol seem to make this notion far less feasible now. The Tigers also need a left fielder.

Does the $6M or so the Tigers just shaved off the payroll by moving Fister, the $8M they save on Prince’s deal this year and next (before the savings drop in the following years), and the money not spent on Jhonny Peralta and Joaquin Benoit (so far) make a Shin-Soo Choo or Jacoby Ellsbury signing more likely?

All I know is something has to give as the Tigers’ roster now is measurably weaker than it was when they got bumped by the Red Sox in the ALCS. To be sure, Dombrowski isn’t done moving and shaking, but the early returns on two big trades aren’t providing fans with the warm fuzzies they’ve come to expect.

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  • burrwick

    Great article Joe. You summed up perfectly what most of us are feeling. Hate the trade on its face for all the reasons you sighted. Nathan’s signing is barely offsetting the disappointment in the trade as it was certain the Tigers had to make a move in that area anyway. No matter what they do from this point on it doesn’t justify a bad trade. If the players they received for Fister turn out to be serviceable big leaguers it would seem more a matter of fortune than certainty based on their current value. Very disappointed.

    • aedgeworth

      You guys really don’t see the big picture. We saved $15-16 million counting about $4 million on our utility player, $6 million on our starter, another $5-6 million on what it would cost for a lefty specialist. We now have the financial flexibility to make a run at Ellsbury (or Choo or Beltran). Add whatever lefty hitting OF we get to those other three players to put this deal into perspective.

      • Joe White

        When every industry expert thinks Dombrowski left something on the table in this trade it tends to make you pause. At this point, I fully expect to see them sign Choo or pull another crazy trade for a left fielder.

        • aedgeworth

          I see Dombrowski indicated yesterday they aren’t going to sign another huge free agent, and seemed to indicate that included Choo. He did say he talked with other GMs about Fister but they didn’t have the players the Tigers wanted. Possibly the players offered wouldn’t give them the financial flexibility they were looking for. They still need to add a couple relievers. They might consider adding someone like Nate McLouth to the mix, or bring in someone under the radar like a Grady Sizemore for example who is supposed to be healthy finally and has several teams interested. They don’t have much left to trade either.

          • Joe White

            Dombrowski will never tip his hand. The final pages of this story have yet to be written for sure. I’m not a McLouth fan at all. I hope they look elsewhere.

          • aedgeworth

            One possibility would be Rajai Davis. In 331 at bats last year hit .260 and stole 45 bases in 51 attempts. He has started 343 games in CF, 173 in LF, and 75 games in RF. He doesn’t have a lot of power (6 HRS), but covers a lot of ground, would be great to use as a pinch runner, and could platoon with Andy Dirks, or play CF if needed. The only other free agent OFs I see helping us (outside of Choo or Beltran) might be Jeff Baker. He would be handy to have. He hit .279 for Texas last year with 11 HRs in only 154 at bats.

  • rayder409

    Could it be that DD knows something about Fister that the rest of us are not privy to? I kind of feel like Fister may have peaked.. and his best years may be in the rearview mirror… also… he’s shown a propensity to be injury prone or at least arm fatigue or soreness… that has benched him for a few starts the last couple of years. He seems slow out of the gate… but has been a money pitcher come August and September… I was at the game he fanned 9 Royals in a row in late Sept. 2012… I think DD is of the mind that Porcello is still worth keeping as he is still on the upside as far as improving.. Same with Smyly… All that being said… it sure doesn’t look good that we let Fister go for the three players we got in return… At least one of them should have been an everyday player of have a Major League pedigree of some note…

    • Joe White

      Agreed on Fister v. Porcello. No question in my mind they chose the right guy to trade. The package in return was odd.

  • BobWhite

    Doug will be missed.

  • Harold Smith

    On the surface the Trade looks lopsided with the Nationals getting by-far the best of the deal……………Only time will tell!!!