Detroit Tigers Underwhelm With Fister Move As Shakeup Continues

by Jon Erkkila | Posted on Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013
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Doug Fister

One week after putting the Hot Stove Season into full motion by dealing Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler, the Detroit Tigers have struck again (but was it a self-inflicted wound?). On Monday night the Tigers sent veteran starting pitcher Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals for a package of three players. Its a deal, from a Detroit perspective, that has been met with an immediate negative reaction from the seemingly heavy majority of both analysts and Tigers fans. Let’s bat around a few issues.

It has always seemed that the Tigers were in for an off-season of change no matter how the 2013 season ended. The Tigers had a boatload of players who have expiring team control in the next two seasons including some of their most important stalwarts like Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera. They also have a rather weak bullpen that was going to need to shoring up in the estimation of nearly everyone. Change was in the air.

But change can be good. It’s been a long held view here that “a static roster is a team that’s waiting around to get worse”. There is no reason to fear a roster shake up if the man making the moves is competent. The Tigers have competent folks making decisions. There should be no untouchables on any roster if the return is making your organization better.
Fielder was the first domino to fall. By sending $30M along with Fielder the Tigers acquired Kinsler to shake up their defense and add some athleticism. It also freed the Tigers from about $76M in future payroll commitments that could be very important in locking in some of their remaining star players.

Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski was outspoken early in the off-season that Drew Smyly would likely be a part of the rotation next season after spending 2013 in the bullpen. Therefore it was fairly certain that the Tigers would be moving a starting pitcher to make room for Smyly. Initially there was some speculation on Scherzer and, more likely, there has been Rick Porcello trade rumors for well over a year. The Detroit News columnist Kurt Mensching did mention Fister a while back and it turns out he nailed it.

An immediate red flag that I see is that Fister tossed 208 innings last year for the Tigers replace. Smyly will now succeed him and it must be noted that Smyly has never pitched more than 126 innings in a season at any level including college and the minors. The Tigers will be asking Smyly to make quite a leap forward in workload…and it’s a safe bet that they will be adding someone to their bullpen who can also take a few starts should Smyly need a breather at some point. Can Smyly step right into the rotation and take the ball every 5th day over a 162-game grind? That is a huge question that will be under the spotlight through the 2014 season.

Dombrowski was adamant, via twitter reports, in his press access after that the trade that the Tigers are not cutting payroll. It sounds like there are more moves in the offing. He mentioned signing a Closer as the #1 priority but then added words to the effect of “we’ll see what happens after that”. There has been plenty of speculation that the Tigers would make a move for left-handed bat to balance their lineup such as Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, or Carlos Beltran.

Fister came to the Tigers in what has been hailed as one of Dombrowski’s finest moves. He fleeced the Mariners in 2011 by grabbing Fister near the trade deadline for a package of B and C-grade prospects. Fister immediately went on an amazing roll to help the Tigers steamroll the AL Central in the second of the ’11 campaign. Fister has since been a very reliable presence in the Tigers rotation even though his contributions get lost in the shuffle at times. Being mixed in with Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Scherzer, and Rick Porcello can do that to a quiet fellow like Fister. It should also be noted that Fister posted Quality Starts in 6 straight post-season outings in a Tigers uniform according to Fox Sports JP Morosi.

The Tigers decided to market Fister’s two years of club control. I really hate to succumb to “group think” on any move in baseball and follow the crowd. But I will say I am very surprised the Tigers needed to take a deal that looks as light as this on does on the surface. The Tigers got quantity but perhaps not enough quality for a pitcher like Fister. Fister, after all, is right in between Cole Hamels and David Price over the last three seasons when ranked by fWAR. Most thought the return on Fister in trade would pass the eye-test with great ease. This does not appear to be the case.

Will Dombrowski and his minions be proven right in the long run? Much will depend on the one player acquired who has yet to appear in the major leagues. Lefty starting pitcher Robbie Ray is a 22-year old who has posted some very solid strikeout totals in the minors and generally solid ERA’s. He is said to have a 4-pitch repertoire and a mid-90’s fastball. It’s Ray who will be scrutinized closely by Tigers fans looking for justification of this deal. Ray was one of the Nationals top 5 prospects but ESPN’s Keith Law notes he’s probably not in his Top 100 in the game. But a power arm lefty with a ticket into a MLB rotation has value and the Tigers will be betting on Ray.

The Tigers also received left-handed reliever Ian Krol and utilityman Steve Lombardozzi in the deal. Krol is also a 22-year old, but one who broke into the majors this year. He posted a 3.95 ERA in 27 innings for the Nats. Evidently his stuff has played up as a reliever once he left starting behind in the minors. The Tigers were in need of a southpaw for their bullpen and Kroll gives them another body that can hopefully give them 60 solid innings of bullpen work. The good news seems to be that Kroll is not thought of as merely a “LOOGY” (Lefty One Out Guy…ie Lefty Specialist) but a reliever capable of finishing innings and getting righty batters out.

Lombardozzi is mostly a second baseman by trade but has dabbled at other spots. Its likely that the switch-hitter will be tasked with replacing Ramon Santiago in Detroit by playing multiple spots around the infield and possibly some outfield even if he may be stretched a bit ability-wise to handle any shortstop by spelling Jose Iglesias. Lombardozzi will only be 25 next season, so there is still time for him to improve offensively. However in 755 big league plate appearances he posted a slash-line that looks like it’s straight out of Central Casting for a utility guy: .264/.297/.342. As it stands, he’s not there of his offense. Versatility is his calling card…unless you value “grit”. He’s known as a “grinder” if that’s your cup of tea.

To sum it up….I’m underwhelmed. When SB Nations’ Chris Cotillo broke the news that Fister was heading to the Nats, there was initially no word of what was heading back in return to Detroit and it was exciting to ponder what the return for Fister would be. In quickly perusing the Nats roster, only Krol among the eventual threesome stuck out as a possible secondary piece given the Tigers bullpen needs. I was dreaming bigger from the names in that system. (no…not Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg!)


Many believe the Tigers were just cutting some payroll by moving Fister in order to make some bigger moves in the upcoming days and weeks of the Hot Stove. Perhaps they are….but I see no reason to take a light return for a marketable asset merely to move some money. So I’m dubious about this being the Tigers motivation. If this deal was available on December 2nd, it probably would have been there for them a few weeks from now. Perhaps a better deal would have crossed their paths by then. No…I think that Dombrowski and his scouts like Ray and Kroll…and maybe even Lombardozzi. Now we’ll see if they’re proven correct over time. But make no mistake…the snap judgement here is that the Tigers whiffed by settling for a rather ordinary package of players. (Yes…we know snap judgements can be very bad!)


So the Tigers off-season of change rolls on. Two very large moves have been executed. More were pretty much promised by Dombrowski tonight. In this view, the Tigers nailed  the first move…and came up short in this one. It should be interesting to see how the next moves fit in with the first two.

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Jon Erkkila
About the Author

Jon Erkkila is a native of Michigan's Upper Peninsula and a lifelong Detroit Tigers fan. Currently living in MLB Blackout Hell, otherwise known as Iowa. Follow him on twitter @yooper_ia

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