Fister trade part of bigger plan

 It doesn’t feel as though it’s been that long since the Seattle Mariners shipped starter Doug Fister to the Detroit Tigers at the 2011 trade deadline in a move that still has M’s fans shaking their heads. The Mariners sent Fister and reliever David Pauley to the Tigers in exchange for Francisco Martinez, Casper Wells, Charlie Furbush, and Chance Ruffin. The deal didn’t look too bad at the time, but what a difference a few years can make. Out of the four players, the Mariners really only received value from Furbush, who’s become a capable reliever, while Fister has carved out a solid career as the forgotten man behind Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer in the Tigers’ rotation. Once again, Fister finds himself on the move after being shipped to the Washington Nationals in a deal that once again, has many scratching their heads.

The Tigers received a package of Robbie Ray, Steve Lombardozzi, and Ian Krol from the Nationals in exchange for the right handed starter. At first glance the return seems weak for a pitcher who has produced along the lines of David Price and Cole Hamels over the last three years; anybody remember what the Rays are asking for Price? The trade makes all kinds of sense for the Nationals, who were looking for a rotation upgrade, but there is obvious reason for concern as to why the Tigers seemingly sold low on Fister.

Looking ahead to 2014, Krol should see time in the Tigers bullpen as an inexpensive southpaw after appearing in 32 games for the Nationals in 2013 in which he posted a 3.95 ERA and 1.317 WHIP. The addition could allow the Tigers to slot lefty Drew Smyly into the rotation after he pitched well out of the bullpen in 2013. Ray, a former Round 12 draft pick, looks to spend the bulk of 2014 starting in the minors as he has yet to pitch above Double-A in three seasons with the Nationals’ system. Lombardozzi projects as a reserve for the Tigers, and can play both second base and left field. It seems that the Tigers were simply filling a couple organizational holes instead of trying to capitalize the return on a big piece like Fister. Considering the return, it’s clear that there’s some reading to do between the lines on this one.

The Tigers haven’t been a team that counts pennies in recent memory; owner Mike Illitch has been consistent with his desire to win a World Series, and payroll has never suffered. After heartbreaking playoff defeats in the past two seasons, GM Dave Dombrowski has been quick to switch gears and look to 2014 and beyond. With slugger Miguel Cabrera needing an extension sooner than later, and Scherzer a year away from free agency, the Tigers would have to inevitably make some tough decisions with respect to their higher priced roster players. There was talk that Scherzer could be on the move, but it’s near impossible to think the 2014 Tigers are a better team without Scherzer on it. That’s why Prince Fielder was shipped to the Texas Rangers in exchange for Ian Kinsler already this winter; a deal that should allow for Scherzer to be extended beyond 2014. Fister is still under team control through 2015, and will receive an estimated $18 million as an arbitration eligible player during that period.

One would think that Fister would still fit on the Tigers’ payroll, after all, Scherzer is only expected to be paid in the $14 million range for 2014, and on paper, Fister starting 30 games should give the Tigers a better chance to win than Smyly starting 30 games. It’s likely that Dombrowski is taking the same approach to this trade as he did the Fielder-Kinsler swap; it’s about far more than just the players swapping teams. The Tigers may want to see what Smyly can provide as a starter in 2014, and at a cost of less than a million dollars, they could allocate the difference between Smyly and Fister’s salaries to another player. Both Krol and Lombardozzi can contribute in 2014 as pre-arb players, which could be great value.

As of now, the Tigers’ 2014 payroll projects to be about $142.3 million including arbitration estimates and league minimum players filling out the roster. That number doesn’t include the signing of closer  Joe Nathan and while dollar figures haven’t been announced, the deal will assuredly pay north of $10 million annually. The Tigers also want to add a left-handed bat to the middle of their order, a void left with the departure of Fielder, and have been connected to free agent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo in the past. If the Tigers do end up signing Choo, or another premium free agent outfielder, they’d be adding another $20 million onto their 2014 payroll, plus whatever Nathan ends up getting. Suddenly the Tigers are in luxury tax territory as an additional $30 million (this is on the low end of estimates) for Nathan and Outfielder X would push them past $170 million, and limit their payroll flexibility.

While the notion of saving $5-6 million when a team’s payroll is expected to be greater than $150 million may seem redundant, there is some obvious sense behind doing so. Let’s say that in a best case scenario, the group of Smyly, Krol, and Lombardozzi gives the Tigers similar production to what Fister would provide at a cost of less than $2 million dollars instead of $6.9 million or so. That $5 million in savings could net another bullpen upgrade, be a difference maker in Choo or Carlos Beltran negotiations, or even be saved for a mid-season transaction should a need arise.

Whatever the case may be, only time will tell whether or not the Tigers received fair value for Fister; we know now that the Mariners clearly didn’t. If Detroit wins it all in 2014, Dombrowski will look like a genius. If the Nationals boast the best rotation in baseball next year and the Tigers falter, life won’t be so peachy in Tiger land. Dombrowski has never been shy about making a bold move in the past, and this offseason has been no different. Could he have gotten more for Fister from another team? Probably, although that’s entirely debatable. How much of a factor did salary play? Maybe the real benefit to the Nationals’ package is the salary cleared while still getting some kind of value in return.The transaction may weaken the Tigers on paper today, but there’s still much to be decided between now and Opening Day 2014. There seems to be a trend between the Fister and Fielder trades, and it’s doubtful that the Tigers are done for the winter. Don’t be surprised if a Choo, Beltran, or Jacoby Ellsbury is calling the Motor City home before 2013 comes to a close.

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Jason A. Churchill

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