A little advance warning – this post by no means condones the Doug Fister trade. The many reasons why that deal was immediately heralded as a coup for the Washington Nationals, rated not just by Dave Cameron of Fangraphs as the worst transaction of the 2014 offseason, but ranking no. 1 and 2 in the Baseball Prospectus staff’s 11 least-favorite offseason moves, all still stand true today. It was the sort of lopsided piece of business that, in the words of Jonah Keri, made ‘every front-office type, journalist, and peanut vendor share the same reaction at the same time: “The Tigers traded Doug Fister for what?!’ It doesn’t especially matter how Fister would go on to miss the first 34 games of the Nationals’ season recovering from a strained right lat muscle, and then allow five earned runs on nine hits over 4.1 innings when he finally made his debut against Oakland last Friday, the fact of the matter remains; you would have to think that if all other 28 ML teams knew Fister and crucially, his two years of team control, was available, Detroit would have received more in return than Ian Krol, Steve Lombardozzi*, and Robbie Ray.
But if there’s one thing we should have learnt by now, it’s the mantra that all new GM’s should have tattooed to their wrist: Don’t Doubt Dave Dombrowski.
This is the man after all, who cut his chops as the architect of the legendary (for sad reasons) 1994 Expos team. His next masterpiece of team-building; only steering the expansion Florida Marlins to a championship in just their fifth season of existence. Before he left the post in 2001, he’d drafted Josh Beckett and signed a 16-year-old kid out of Venezuela. That kid turned out to be Miguel Cabrera, and in 2003, the Marlins won it all once again. His subsequent work in Detroit is so legendary it’s a surprise that anyone trades with him anymore; he fleeced the Marlins to get Miggy after the 2007 season by giving up two top 10 prospects, Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller, who haven’t amounted to much. He bagged Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco at bargain prices. He nabbed Austin Jackson and Max Scherzer at the expense of Curtis Granderson. He picked up Jhonny Peralta, Anibal Sanchez, Omar Infante, and of course Fister. In the 58 trades he’d made prior to this season at the helm in Detroit, Double D had given away just 84.5 bWAR worth of players, but acquired 188.9 bWAR – a net profit of 104.4 bWAR.
Might acquiring Robbie Ray just be his next heist?
As shouted from the rooftops at the time of the deal (Matthew Kory’s words in that aforementioned BP piece are a typical response), Ray wasn’t much of a prospect. After being popped in the 12th round and signed for nearly $800,000 in the 2010 amateur draft, he promptly slogged his way through the lower rungs of the Nats’ farm system for the next two seasons, the nadir coming when he posted a 6.56 ERA in 21 starts (22 appearances) at High-A in 2012. The light then somewhat clicked on in Ray’s third trip to the Carolina League in 2013, the 6’2 lefty putting up a 3.11 ERA in 16 starts, striking out 100 batters with just 60 hits allowed along the way, before he was promoted to Double-A in the second half. There he made 11 starts, struck out over a batter an inning (9.31 K/9 if you’re picky), lowered his walk rate, and had a 3.72 ERA. Then came the trade, and the projections, Marc Hulet initially pegging the Brentwood, Tennessee native with the following:
After making just 11 starts at the level last year, Ray will likely return to Double-A to open the 2014 season. A lack of premium talent in the upper levels of the system in Detroit could help him quickly reach Triple-A.
So much for that. Ray would jump straight into the Triple-A pool, and immediately dominate, making five starts (six total appearances) during which he assembled an impressive 1.53 ERA, before an injury to Anibal Sanchez (a finger laceration to be specific), dictated the Tiger’s find themselves a starter for May 6. As we all know, they called upon Ray, who in a feat literally no one expected, probably not even the mastermind/witch Dombrowski himself, pitched in the majors before Fister this season.
Yes, it was against the Astros, and as put by Jeff Sullivan, ‘there’s only so much you can make of a start, particularly when it’s a first start.’ But one run on five hits with five strikeouts in 5.1 innings? That’s something. Some of his pitches looked a work in progress, as excellently detailed by Sullivan here, but the promise was apparent. For an encore yesterday though, this time facing the Twins, he was even better; he stifled the Minnesota offense for six shutout innings, giving up just four hits and surrendering only one walk, striking out two. When he left, the Tigers were up 3-0, but would go on to lose 4-3 after the bullpen blew the lead. Having showcased a lean, athletic build, easy delivery, and decent four-seam fastball in his two starts so far, Ray has proven he has the components of a major-league starter – the results themselves speak to his effectiveness. Dave Dombrowski might well have done it again.
No, Ray’s not an impact rookie like Jose Fernandez, with a future as an ace ahead, but could he develop into an above-average mid-rotation starter, more than capable of eating 200 innings a year? Absolutely. Already, he’s a back-of-the-rotation type. Funny, because many would label Fister an above-average mid-rotation starter too, except that he’s 30-years-old and heading for free agency. Ray, on the other hand is just 22, and has six full years of team control left before he’ll sniff the lucrative open waters. That payday might yet be delayed even further, seeing as how Ray is due to be sent back down to Toledo today with Sanchez returning from the DL, such is the wealth of starting pitching in Detroit.
Still, you’re telling me that Dombrowski couldn’t have got Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, or even Rafael freakin’ Soriano included in the trade, to prevent bullpen blowups like what happened yesterday occurring?! C’mon man…
* Lombardozzi was of course then included in Detroit’s trade for Alex Gonzalez, as they
panicked and pulled the trigger too early sought a capable fill-in at shortstop with positional incumbent Jose Iglesias out for the year.