Detroit Tigers See Robbie Ray as a “Number Three Type Starter”

Oct 16, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Doug Fister (58) throws against the Boston Red Sox during the first inning in game four of the American League Championship Series baseball game at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Last Friday, Tom Gage of the Detroit News let us in on little secret: the Detroit Tigers front office sees newly acquired prospect Robbie Ray as eventually being a number three starter.

Tigers president Dave Dombrowski praised Ray this week, but didn’t gush — saying “he projects for us to be a No. 3 type starter.”

Not higher?

Those who didn’t like the Doug Fister deal won’t like it any better hearing that.

The tone of Gage’s piece suggests that this is more reason to dislike the trade. And it sort of is. Doug Fister is an above average starter right now, and the Tigers are trying to win a World Series right now, and there’s always a chance that prospects don’t work out. Those are the reasons to dislike the trade (and why I dislike the trade), not because Ray’s future ceiling is lower than Fister’s current ceiling.

If Ray turns out to be no better than average as a major league starter, the deal could still work out to be a good one.

Here’s what I mean:

Fister avoided arbitration with the Washington Nationals for $7.2 million. Let’s say he earns $11 million in 2015 in his final year of arbitration eligibility. Let’s also suppose that his 3.3 WAR Steamer projection holds up for both this year and next year. That means, in the player of Doug Fister, the Tigers traded away 6.6 wins and $21.5 million of surplus value.* That’s a very, very useful player.

*6.6 wins times $6 million per win on the free agent market minus the $18.2 million he’ll get paid.

Now let’s suppose that Ray enters the big leagues in 2015 as a 1.0 WAR pitcher, gains 0.5 WAR in 2016, and then tops out at 2.0 WAR for his final four years of team control. Let’s also suppose that he eventually earns a total of $26.5 million in arbitration awards. If that’s the case, then Ray would be worth 10.5 wins and $35 million in surplus value.

That’s a better value than Fister, even though he was never as good as Fister (not even really close) in any particular year. That’s the benefit of pre-arbitration production.

Of course, we need to discount Ray’s value because it’s future value (which is never as beneficial as current value, at least not to a team in contention), and there are other factors we should calculate if we really wanted to do a full breakeven analysis of the trade, but it Ray’s lower-than-expected ceiling isn’t reason alone to hate the Fister trade.

We would all like Ray to become Randy Johnson, but it won’t take that to make this trade “work out”. Even if Ray is “only a number three”, he would provide great value for the club.

Topics: Detroit Tigers, Doug Fister, Robbie Ray

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  • Matt Pelc

    The Yankees said the same thing about Mashiro Tanaka last week–an eventual #3 guy. Think the GMs took a “Temper Fans Enthusiasm” seminar at the Owners Meetings in December?

  • Damian56xx

    If any SP has the height to be the next RJ, it is Fister, not Ray. Tigers are not very deep and can ill-afford many or DL causing injuries, esp @ starting C (Avila) who seems to be a magnet for wayward baseballs and bats, Wouldn’t enjoy seeing Lombardozzi playing any sig-time @ 2B and esp SS, where he has all of 2 GP. Dirks has been injured the past two seasons, and needs to be healthy and productive as well, perhaps if he is going to be platooned with Davis in LF, he might make it through the entire season unscathed.

    The 3 players obtained by trade from the Nats are going to be under heavy scrutiny by Tigers fans and the local sports MSM. Tigers brass will be anxiously expecting them to be productive, else DD taking even more heat than he has already received.

    The Tigers bench seems to be a bit stronger defensively and faster, yet weaker on offense than last season on paper. Their BP has some ? marks outside of closer, with at least couple RPs who may or may not pan out, and a couple who need to rebound.

    Yeah the ’14 Tigers have quite a few ifs, most notably the rookie 3B Castellanos, whose performance is crucial to the Tigers moving Miggy back to 1B permanently.

  • Tim OConnor

    Nice article, Matt. Like nearly all Tigers’ fans (and I emphasize fans), I’m none too thrilled with the Fister trade. But your article presents an alternative view of the trade; one that I would probably not have thought of. That Surplus Value is a nice way to evaluate trades, etc. Good stuff, Matt ….

  • Yuma 3:10

    Hi Matt, Nice article. I was one of the few who was a fan of the Fister trade from the beginning. I think we are going to see some good things from Steve Lombardozzi and discover he will be a big up grade over the 2012 / 2013 Ramon Santiago. I also like Ian Kroll. Yes he is somewhat of an unknown, but I’ve talked to some very knowledgeable Nationals fans that believe he can and will be a shutdown left-hander in the 7th & 8th innings, not just a marginal LOGGY. And finally Robbie Ray. No, he’s not the next Clayton Kershaw, but even if he’s the next “Derek Holland” or that level of pitcher in a couple years, I am thrilled with the trade as a whole. Not to mention, I just cant get past this “non statistical based” gut feeling that Fister was slightly declining, almost at such a rate that was hardly noticeable. From being dominant in 2011, to being very good but with injury problems in 2012 ( abdominal issues on two occasions ), to being somewhere between above average and good last year.

  • chefkeith

    When we traded for Fister, everyone was calling him a #4 starter. He turned out OK. Anibal Sanchez was labeled as our 4th starter also, but in reality he was like a having another #1, behind Verlander, Scherzer, and Fister. The Yankees are calling Tanaka a #3 and paid him $175M for 6 years. Seems that people are afraid to give anyone a #1 or #2 starter label these days before they see some actual proof.