As we’ve gone through many of the bigger trades in modern Detroit Tigers history at Motor City Bengals only a couple of players have merited discussion of the trade to obtain them and the deal that sent them packing. Doug Fister is one of them, however. The deadline masterstroke to bring him in and the controversial parlay to send him away which infuriated many Tigers fans. Let’s dive in.
The 2011 edition of the Detroit Tigers was looking to break through for a division title, something unseen in Detroit since 1987. The 2009 club had lost the division in a Game 163 heartbreaker and only managed a break-even 81-81 mark in 2010. The team was heavy in talent in 2011 but a rotation featuring Justin Verlander as the Ace still needed some support.
The Tigers had an up and coming stud in Max Scherzer and homegrown Rick Porcello behind Verlander. But GM Dave Dombrowski’s club was also giving journeyman Brad Penny 31 starts that season. Reliever Phil Coke was unconvincingly masquerading as a starter for 14 starts. Youngsters Jacob Turner and Andy Oliver weren’t ready despite getting five starts between them on the season.
The Tigers needed a starter to hand the ball to every 5th day. It was time for Dombrowski to execute a surgical strike as the trade deadline neared. If Dombrowski was a surgeon and a trade is akin to an organ transplant, the acquisition of Doug Fister from the Seattle Mariners ended up being a flawlessly performed lung transplant for the Tigers. Fister would breathe new life into the Tigers over the remainder of 2011.
It was a bit of shock. Fister was a relatively little known fixture to most fans. The third-year pitcher had logged some solid innings for the Mariners but he wasn’t exactly the most sought after commodity around MLB.
The Tigers were able to acquire Fister for lefty Charlie Furbush, outfielder Casper Wells, prospect Francisco Martinez, and a player to be named later which turned into reliever Chance Ruffin. It wasn’t a premium price to pay considering how Fister was about to explode on the scene. Furbush would give the Mariners four respectable seasons from the bullpen. The other, three, however were relative non-entities for Seattle.
Meanwhile, Fister was about to bring up memories of Doyle Alexander pitching the Tigers to a division title in ‘87 after a deadline deal (yeah, yeah, for John Smoltz. Let it go). Fister decided to be nearly un-hittable for the next two months in Detroit and put a spark in the rotation to carry the club to a playoff berth.
Fister would go 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA in 70.1 innings in Detroit. He allowed two or fewer earned runs in 9 of his 10 starts for the Tigers. Fister would cap it off by pitching the division clincher in Oakland.
The Tigers would beat the Yankees in the ALDS and then lose a tough six-game ALCS to the Rangers. Fister would get credit for two post-season wins to complete going down as one of the most successful trade deadline acquisitions in Tigers history.
Fister would take over a spot in Detroit’s rotation and become a steady and reliable presence over the next two years plus be a true fan favorite. Fister would post a 3.4 bWAR year in ‘12 and a 4.0 bWAR in ‘13. The Tigers won two more AL Central crowns in those seasons with Fister playing a pronounced role.
Fister would also take the ball in the playoffs five times in those seasons and never allow more than three earned runs in any of them. He earned a reputation as a quality post-season pitcher.
But times were changing. The Tigers’ unsuccessful run at a world title came up short with a World Series loss in 2012 and a devastating ALCS loss to Boston in 2013. The payroll was expanding. Free agency was looming for a few key players as well. Dombrowski was looking to make some moves to replenish the team with younger talent but also cut some payroll. Fister had two years of control left. His deal looked marketable and Dombrowski went shopping.
Suddenly on an early December night after the ‘13 season, the Tigers online community went crazy with word breaking a deal sending Fister to the Washington Nationals. The word on the return, however, was very slow to leak out. Mlbtraderumors.com was being refreshed minute by minute on computers everywhere. Names were flying about. A report had surfaced a week earlier about the Nats possibly looking to move Anthony Rendon due to his injury issues. Maybe Rendon was the target. Many observers felt the Tigers needed another offensive presence.
Then word came down. The Tigers were getting prospect Robbie Ray, lefty Ian Krol and utility man Steve Lombardozzi. The immediate reaction was one of disappointment and befuddlement among most Tigers analysts and fans. “Surely Fister and his attractive contract were worth more than THAT?!?”
Dombrowski would publicly discuss a list of 15 pitchers he’d targeted in a deal and he was steadfast in saying Ray was on the list. However, Krol looked like a modestly talented reliever and Lombardozzi like a rather run-of-the-mill bench guy. It seemed like a very light return.
Ray eventually became a very valuable young pitcher. Unfortunately, it was after Dombrowski cut bait on Ray after one season sending the young lefty flamethrower to the Arizona Diamondbacks. The three-team deal netted the Tigers Shane Greene from the Yankees. The Yankees acquired Didi Gregorius in the swap. It can be argued the Tigers finished third in the three-way deal.
Lombardozzi would never play a regular season in Detroit. Krol would hang around for a few seasons but never become a reliable part of a major league bullpen.
Fister would go to Washington and post a very tasty 16-6 season for the Nationals with a 2.41 ERA in 25 starts in 2014. That would be Fister’s final season of stardom, however. Over the next four seasons, he’d bounce around as an oft-injured journeyman playing out the string of a fine big league career.
Doug Fister came to Detroit in a deal that was nothing but a “win” for the Tigers. It was one of Dombrowski’s calling card moments.
But if trumpet music fit for a royal entrance can be played for his arrival then the loser’s theme from “The Price is Right” is probably fitting for the underwhelming series of events surrounding his departure.
Doug Fister was the right man brought in at the right time and pitched plenty of big games for successful teams. That’s a pretty good memory of a player for most Tigers fans to hold as the years go by.