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.