It’s day 15 of my 2014 MLB Season Preview, which means we’re almost done with the NL! It only seems appropriate then, that we’ve saved the team who I view as the league’s best until last – yes, even better than those Cardinals, who incidentally have a new second basemen you might have first heard of last October. Today then, it’s finally the turn of the Washington Nationals, who having entered 2013 as many experts’ prediction to claim the NL pennant failed to live up to the lofty expectations bestowed upon them. Even after making so many people look foolish however, the Nats are again being widely tipped to make the postseason this year, due in large part to one notable winter acquisition; Doug Fister is coming to the nation’s capital.
I thought Doug Fister was underrated even before his winter trade; overshadowed by the attention garnered by a Tigers rotation that boasted 2 AL Cy Young Award winners and another that recently received a 5-year $88 million extension, the 6’8 righty quietly ranked as the 9th best pitcher over the last three seasons, at least by FIP-based WAR. Never did I realize quite the extent to which even his own team undervalued his performance. In what was voted by team executives the best trade of the offseason (garnering 14 votes in a poll in which no other deal garnered more than 5), the Washington Nationals somehow managed to acquire Fister from Detroit this past December, sending back a scant package consisting merely of utility infielder Steve Lombardozzi, LHRP Ian Krol, and pitching prospect Robbie Ray. And if those latter names don’t illustrate quite how criminally low Detroit sold Fister, it’s worth mentioning at this point how he accumulated 4.1 WAR in 2013 alone – a mark higher than any Nats starter last season; in stark opposition, Lombardozzi and Krol have accrued -0.1 WAR together over their entire careers so far, whereas Ray barely checked in on MLB.com’s Top 100 Prospects list (he landed at 97). So while Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski can point to his recent trade record (he being responsible for hauling in both Austin Jackson and Max Scherzer) as evidence of his savvy decision making, it certainly seems in the case of Fister that he’s been robbed.
Detroit’s loss however, is Washington’s gain. Having for the past two years attempted to fill their fourth rotation spot with the likes of Edwin Jackson and Dan Haren, the Nats acquisition of Fister brings not just much needed stability to the position, but subtle excellence – and at a low price. For comparison’s sake, Fister’s 7.4 WAR over the past two seasons ties him with Zack Greinke for 23rd best in the majors; the difference between them being that Greinke received a $150 million contract last winter, whereas this year Fister will make $7.2 million – with another year of arbitration to come before he hits the free agent market in 2016. How did the Tigers come away with so little in return for such a quality cost-controlled asset then? We live in a baseball economy in which 2 years of RA Dickey cost Toronto $25 million, Travis d’Arnaud, and Noah Syndegaard. Wil Myers was the price the Royals had to pay for the luxury of 2 years of James Shields. Phil freakin’ Hughes will make more money than Fister next year for goodness sake. And all the Tigers got was a couple of bench scrubs and a middling prospect? No wonder Nats GM Mike Rizzo said of the trade “This is an exciting day for the Washington Nationals”.
Coming off a season in which he posted his least flattering ERA of the last three years (3.67), Fister’s numbers figure to only improve having moved from Detroit. Not only has Comerica Park actually rated as hitter-friendly recently, despite it’s reputation, but the infield defense fielded by the Tigers was less than ideal for a groundball inducing pitcher, and that’s putting it kindly. His new men on the corners, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche, accumulated 46 more Defensive Runs Saved over the last two seasons than Fister’s previous statuesque teammates Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, while Anthony Rendon and Ian Desmond also profile as solid defenders up the middle. Facing the NL East more often certainly won’t hurt Fister’s cause either; the strikeout-happy Braves representing the only above average offense, while opposing pitchers should this year feast on the division’s remaining toothless trio – the Phillies, Mets, and Marlins. That Fister already boasts a 2.04 ERA against the NL, allowing an opposing batting average of just .226 (admittedly in the small sample size of 79 1/3 innings) also bodes well for the Nats’ new acquisition.
Much like in Detroit – where he backed up Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez – Fister will slot right into the no. 4 spot of the National’s starting rotation, behind Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann. His 2013 3.26 FIP in fact, lumps him in nicely with his rotation mates – as shown in the graph above – in forming a quartet significantly above league-average. Most notably, with the addition of Fister’s impeccable command, Washington subsequently now project to field the league’s best rotation – replacing Detroit in a ranking they led a year ago – making them prohibitive favorites to return to the heights predicted of them in 2013.
As you can probably tell, I’m still trying to wrap my head around this one from Detroit’s perspective. Perhaps it was because his average fastball velocity of 89mph looks Jamie Moyer-ish compared to his former teammates. In his past four years of above-average results, were there indistinct signals of Fister suddenly turning into a dreadful pitcher? Maybe, as Fangraphs speculated “he spent the off-season burning down orphanages in third world countries and we just haven’t heard about it yet”. Obviously Max Scherzer will need paying soon, but an extension for the reigning AL Cy Young wasn’t apparently of concern to Dombrowski when he refuted “I don’t think that plays into it at all at this point”. We’ll probably never fully understand what possessed the Tigers to deal one of the league’s best arms of the last three years for bit-part players. Just know this: Washington beat all 28 other teams who undoubtedly would also have taken on Fister at such a price. The Nationals got themselves a steal.