Trying to Rationalize the Fister Trade


If you spend some time looking around for Tigers news and opinion today, you’re unlikely to see anything positive written about Dave Dombrowski’s decision to ship Doug Fister to Washington for Robbie Ray, Steve Lombardozzi and Ian Krol. Dave Cameron has a nicely written – and highly negative – take on it at Fangraphs. In essence it’s just hard to see this as anything but a titanic blunder or swindle.

Since you’re unlikely to find anyone, anywhere defending this trade I thought I would take it upon myself to play devil’s advocate (and I should state upfront that I keep scanning the wire in hopes that the deal was falsely reported, has been called off or actually includes something extra on top of Lombardozzi, Krol and Ray).

Aug 9, 2013; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals relief pitcher Ian Krol (46) throws during the ninth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

So how do you have to look at this for it to seem like a positive for the Tigers and their fans???

1. Not just Dave Dombrowski, but GMs everywhere value velocity more than getting outs. Take a look at how various pitcher stats and traits are correlated with salary – you’ll find a powerful link between velocity and pay, hence velocity and “demand”. If this is true (among GMs, it certainly isn’t true among fans) getting a good price for Fister may have been impossible – and it may shed a little more light on how Dombrowski was able to get him cheaply from the Mariners in the first place.

2. Drew Smyly is a very good pitcher. I’m not personally sold on the idea that a rotation needs L-R balance, but others may be. Regardless, if you project Smyly as an above average starter (and may have only kept Porcello in the rotation in 2013 in a failed effort to build trade value) it IS a waste to use him in middle relief. If you’re really high on Smyly and not so especially high on Fister you might argue that Smyly and Fister are likely to put up similar numbers in 2014 – even if expecting Smyly to do what Fister has done from 2011-2013 is patently unfair.

3. There’s still hope for Rick Porcello. I’d assume that Dombrowski would have preferred to deal Porcello to Washington for the same package (though that isn’t a given, Porcello does throw harder) but couldn’t pull it off. Porcello DID make big strides last season, at least in terms of finishing batters off. If you throw out that inexplicably awful start against the Angels his season would look pretty good – and a pretty close match for Fister’s. If you’re a lover of the old xFIP, Porcello actually looked better (if you can believe that) with a stellar 3.19 on the season – and remember that on the whole the tendency with xFIP vs. ERA is to bring everybody closer to the mean. Fister is a guy who looks good with fancy metrics and real production, Porcello is the guy who only looks good according to those fancy metrics – but, still, you could argue that Porcello will be just as good in 2014 as Fister if not better – and he is younger too.

4. There are big plans for the Fister savings. It’s looking like it is the case that Dombrowski has been told to fill a variety of needs while meeting a strict budget this offseason – though we could always be proven wrong again. It may be that without the Fister savings the Tigers could not afford to lock up Scherzer or Cabrera, or maybe they could not afford to sign the necessary bullpen arms. At any rate, when you’re looking at what the Tigers “get” from the deal don’t forget to include whatever you think $6.5 million would buy – and it even possible that Dombrowski figured on a much higher arbitration award for Fister than that.

5. Dave Dombrowski likes the package that the Tigers received more than you do. And more than any sportswriters, fans, etc… do. WE see that package and think that the Tigers gave up Fister (a guy as good or better than, say, Matt Garza) for Casey Crosby (Ray), Don Kelly (Lombardozzi) and Dan Schlereth (Krol) and that deal looks just awful (and though you could say we have the “benefit of hindsight” Crosby and Schlereth were probably more highly regarded than Ray and Krol in their time). We can say Ray is no lock, Lombardozzi has no ceiling and wonder if Krol is even better than Darin Downs. If we do that, we’re going to start wondering why they didn’t just deal Porcello straight up for Ray or another pitching prospect that falls just outside the top 100 list. We have to imagine that even if Dombrowski doesn’t give Fister the respect we think he’s due and knows that no other GMs give him the respect we think he’s due, Dombrowski must think he’s getting more than Crosby, Kelly and Schlereth.

Ray is the top-rated guy in the Tigers package and maybe he’s less of a “risky” pick than we think from looking at numbers alone. After all, Dombrowski is the guy with the scouting department. Ray appeared to get the walks under control last year AND saw a rise in velocity to boot, his numbers were definitely not just a product of some good luck. If Ray “pans out” he’ll still have absolutely no effect on the Tigers W-L record in 2014 but he’ll be on track to arrive mid-to-late 2015 and replace Rick Porcello when his years of club control are up (or, in a nightmare scenario, maybe Max Scherzer in April of 2015) helping the Tigers continue to compete beyond 2015 without requiring a payroll the city simply can’t support.

Lombardozzi has looked like Don Kelly in limited major league experience (good glove, weak bat and an inability to hit left-handed pitching) BUT he hit the majors in 2011 at the age of 22 and he’ll be playing next year at the age of 25. His minor league numbers were pretty good: .298/.369/.412 for a second baseman with a good glove – and he did steal 30 bases . Maybe, just maybe he isn’t Don Kelly..? I have to mention that minor league Don Kelly wasn’t major league Don Kelly, but still – with the right rose-colored glasses there’s room to hope that Lombardozzi is actually more of a Kolten Wong, a middle infielder Tigers fans would probably have been a lot more enthusiastic about. He also does have some minor league experience at short, and his “numbers” there are average as opposed to bad – maybe he’s no regular shortstop but maybe he IS capable of playing the position in a pinch. Even if you’re inclined to look on the bright side there – it’s hard to see why Dombrowski would have been so eager to get him as opposed to somebody else. He’s a switch-hitter, but he doesn’t hit lefties. Though a really optimistic projection would say he could be a league average second baseman or a bit above, there’s no real need for a second baseman at the moment, or for a glove-first lefty outfielder. If the Tigers are really hoping for something in particular from him it’s probably as a fallback plan at third base – a role Don Kelly could also have filled.

Ian Krol is a tough nut to crack too… once upon a time (in A ball) he was one of the A’s better starting pitching prospects featuring – supposedly – an average fastball but plus breaking stuff. Then he got hurt, missed most of the 2011 season and struggled with the BABIP monster upon his return in 2012. THEN he got dealt to the Nats who – with a stocked rotation and good organizational depth – moved him into relief. As a minor league reliever he struck out just about everyone in sight in the first half of 2011. Then he got the call, and stuck though he looked decent rather than stellar. The 93.5 mph average fastball velocity, as a big league reliever, didn’t look “average”. He – as a big leaguer – featured a plus change and a plus cutter, though the fastball wasn’t necessarily fooling anyone. In half a season of relieve he had “big splits” (like a Coke or a Downs) – a .593 OPS against lefties and a .957 OPS against righties – which is going to make everyone scream “LOOGY”. You don’t need to be an extreme optimist to figure that isn’t really accurate: guys with good changeups and cutters do not tend to be guys that struggle against batters coming from the opposing side. Krol actually had a higher strikeout rate and lower walk rate against righties. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he’s really a starter (Coke taught me a lesson) but I’d go so far as to say he might be really more of a replacement for Benoit in the 8th than Downs as a LOOGY.

So maybe, maybe, the Tigers rotation doesn’t really get any worse by replacing Fister with Smyly. Maybe the Tigers bullpen doesn’t really get any worse by replacing Smyly with Krol. Maybe Lombardozzi is a half-a-win better on the bench than Danny Worth would have been and maybe he’s a head and shoulders above any other emergency option at second or third. Maybe though we feel Fister should have brought a lot more, that’s all in our heads – what matters is his value on the market not his stats. If you can bring yourself to believe all that – and maybe Dave Dombrowski does believe all that – then the Tigers kept the “productivity” of their base roster intact while adding $6.5 million in “cap space” (enough to buy a Grant Balfour, perhaps) and a new #1 organizational pitching prospect.

There. I did it. THAT is what you have to convince yourself if you’re going to see this trade as a positive for the Detroit Tigers (and not the worst trade Dave Dombrowski has ever made).