Why Did the Tigers Trade Doug Fister for Three Guys You've Never Heard Of?

Doug Fister takes his talents to an already loaded Washington rotation

After recently agreeing to one of my favorite trades this offseason by sending Prince Fielder to Texas in exchange for Ian Kinsler, the Tigers made my least favorite trade of the offseason yesterday by sending Doug Fister to Washington in exchange for Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol, and prospect Robbie Ray.

To put this deal in perspective, last offseason the Rays traded James Shields and Wade Davis for Wil Myers, Mike Montgomery, Jake Odorizzi, and Patrick Leonard. Despite skewed public perception, Shields and Fister have been been comparable pitchers over the past three seasons, and both had two years of team control at the time of their respective trades. Putting aside the nickname “Big Game James” and his status as staff ace relative to Fister’s midrotation profile, Fister has actually posted the higher WAR over the past three seasons. WAR is not the only statistic, and I would prefer two years of Shields to two years of Fister, but nevertheless, this comparison shows what pitchers of Fister’s caliber and contract situation have brought back in trades.

How Important Was Fister?

Fister has been one of Detroit’s best and most consistent pitchers over the past three years, while the three players Detroit received lack impact talent. Lombardozzi and Krol essentially are role players while Ray, who has a mid-rotation ceiling, immediately becomes one of the Tigers’ top prospects. Though all three players are useful to the Tigers, I don't believe that the return outweighs the loss of Fister.

Fister has posted WAR totals of 5.2, 3.5, and 4.6 over the last three seasons respectively. His strikeout totals are much lower than that of rotation mates Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, but his walk rate is also extremely low. This low BB rate leads to a very good 3.61 K/BB ratio, while his 54.3% GB rate leads to a low 0.60 HR/9 rate.

The Steamer projection system does not project Fister to be quite as effective in 2014. This pessimistic projection forecasts a higher ERA, HR rate and BB rate, and a lower K rate, innings pitched total, and WAR. Fister is entering his age-30 season, the point where pitchers typically begin to decline, but I would be surprised if his decline was so steep so soon.

Detroit's New Look

Despite the criticism they have received, this trade isn't as awful as it may initially seem for Detroit. First, the Tigers shed payroll, and second, they acquired three young, useful, cost-controlled players. The savings in this deal are much less than the savings in the Fielder trade, but are still significant as Fister earned $4 million last season and is projected to earn roughly $7 million next season through the arbitration process. Barring an extension, Fister will undergo the arbitration process one last time next winter and be eligible for free agency following the 2015 season.

The 25-year-old Lombardozzi has the ability to play second base, third base and left field, and will be likely be counted on to back up all three. He's played one game at shortstop, too, so it is plausible that the Tigers could could on him to back up that position as well. Lombardozzi is underwhelming offensively, posting a career .264/.297/.342 line through parts of three seasons but is serviceable as a utility player.

The departure of Fister pushes left-hander Drew Smyly, previously a left-handed reliever, to the rotation and creates a deficiency of left-handers in the bullpen. Krol, who made his debut this past season, will be counted on to fill that void as a middle reliever and left-handed specialist. He is projected to post a 3.42 ERA, 8.75 K/9 and a 3.23 BB/9 and is a cost friendly way to help rebuild the bullpen.

The final and most significant player heading to Detroit is lefty Robbie Ray, recently ranked as the Nationals’ number five prospect by Baseball America. Ray split the 2013 season between High-A and Double-A, and will likely return to Double-A to begin the 2014 season. Ray boasts a fastball in the low to mid 90’s and a quality changeup, though the lack of a quality third pitch could be the difference between a career in the middle of the rotation or a career in the bullpen.

The development of Ray will be the difference in this trade being a loss or a draw for the Tigers. If he reaches his ceiling, Ray could give the Tigers six years of quality innings in the middle of their rotation, essentially becoming a cheaper version of Fister. It's unlikely that Ray will ever be as productive as Fister, but the potential for six years of cheap, quality innings is very attractive to the Tigers in a market where even Phil Hughes earns $24 million.

What's Next For Detroit?

The money that the Tigers have saved thus far will not be put back in the pockets of owner Mike Ilitich but rather will be reinvested into the team. The recent signing of closer Joe Nathan is the first step, but I would be surprised if their spending stopped there.

Free agent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo would make a lot of sense for the Tigers in left field, which would allow top prospect Nick Castellanos to move back to his original position of third base. Choo’s high OBP would boost to the Tigers offense and provide Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez with additional chances to drive in runs.

Furthermore, with the recent news that the Yankees will not pay Robinson Cano $200 million, Cano will be looking for someone else willing to agree to a large contract. Despite the acquisition of Ian Kinsler at second base, the Tigers could still make a play for the his services. Kinsler could be either traded again or moved to left field while Cano would join Cabrera on the right side of the infield. Both of these signings are pure speculation but could answer questions of why Detroit has been working to shed payroll.

The Nationals' Perspective

After a disappointing 2013 season, the Nationals hope to revert to their 2012 dominance and this trade will help them get there. The combination of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Fister immediately puts the Nationals in the conversation for best rotation in the league while not sacrificing anything tremendously significant from the prospective 2014 squad. With the promotion of top prospect Anthony Rendon to everyday second baseman and the presence of capable backup Danny Espinosa, Lombardozzi was not guaranteed a spot on the roster, making him expendable.

In opposite fashion to Drew Smyly, the addition of Fister will likely push left-hander Ross Detwiler to the bullpen. The Nationals still could add another lefty to pair with Detwiler but Krol’s departure does not leave a gaping hole in the Nat’s pen. Finally, Ray was not expected to significantly contribute until 2015 at the earliest so his inclusion in the deal does not affect the 2014 club.