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.
Max Scherzer is “mad”, apparently. “Mad” in the insane sense, for turning down the six-year, $144 million contract Dave Dombrowski and the Detroit Tigers offered to him before the season; for betting on himself to turn in an even better performance than his Cy Young showing in 2013, and get an even bigger payday in free agency this offseason; for doing so in an era when a new pitcher every week seems to need Tommy John surgery, and a year in which he’ll turn 30. More traditionally “mad” – angry, really – because Sports Illustrated brought up the topic of his contact in a recent cover story on him, “Mad Max’s $144 million bet,” a piece which they subtitled with the question “did he make a dumb wager on his future?”
“Mad” in another respect too though. “Mad” like the New York slang meaning – a term defined by the always-reputable Urban Dictionary as “an appropriate replacement for Northern California’s “hella” and Boston’s “wicked”. In the common vernacular, it translates into “a lot” or “extremely.” In that regard, Max Scherzer is most certainly “mad”; “mad” good.
We all know the events that occurred between Scherzer, his (super-)agent Scott Boras, and the Tigers organization during the winter/Spring Training period. Offered that aforementioned six-year, $144 million contract, a deal which would have put him on the same pay scale as Cole Hamels, but perhaps-crucially not as much as Detroit teammate Justin Verlander, Scherzer declined, dismissed the possibility of talks during the year, and thus seemed to clearly announce he would test the waters of free agency after 2014. At this point, things got a bit sour publicly between Boras, his client, and Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, as rumors about ‘who offered what exactly’ and mutual hurt feelings led to some sniping back and forth through the media. Meanwhile, several commentators panned Scherzer’s decision to turn down the money ($144 million!), figuring his value would never be higher. Matters weren’t helped by Miguel Cabrera receiving a massive extension the following week – presumably tying up Detroit’s future payroll.
You couldn’t exactly blame the doubters; since being selected with the 11th overall pick in the 2006 draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks, the University of Missouri product had been solid, if unspectacular, as a starter prior to 2013. His 108 ERA+ between 2010 and 2012 (and 9.2 K/9 rate over that same span) certainly made him a quality option on the bump for the Tigers, but he wasn’t dominant. His award-winning 2013 then, looked a tad out-of-place; while his superficial stats (2.90 ERA and league-leading 0.97 WHIP) made him worthy of Cy Young consideration, other pitchers were arguably better (both Yu Darvish and Anibal Sanchez had higher ERA+ marks, while Felix Hernandez also had a strong case). Scherzer’s case was almost certainly helped by an incredible amount of run support, a factor which propelled him to a 21-3 win/loss record. Whether he’d get such help again while simultaneously proving his improvement wasn’t a fluke and staying healthy, meant betting on himself during 2014 was a risky proposition.
So far though, Max Scherzer’s “$144 million bet” is looking good to pay out, and do so in a big way. After starting well in 2013 (he had a 13-1 record at the All-Star break), the 29-year-old has been hot out of the gate once again, compiling a 1.72 ERA through his first seven starts. More than simply that crude measure of performance though, Scherzer has either improved his peripherals further from their 2013 spike, or simply maintained their excellency – the difficulty in doing so being the very reason why many prognosticators (myself included) expected regression. A quick overview; his K/9 rate is up from 10.08 in 2013, to 11.49 this year; his walk rate has improved too, falling from 2.35 BB/9 to 2.30; mixing in his curveball just as much as last season, his opponent’s average allowed has effectively remained the same, currently resting at .195. After getting a little lucky with his FB/HR% a year ago, his rate has stabilized back to league average in 2014, which in addition to an increased ground ball rate has led to a career-best xFIP (2.43).
By every measure, be it tERA (2.75), SIERA (2.36), or the simple eye test, Scherzer has been even better in 2014 than when he won the Cy. With every start then, each outing being one less in which he could possibly incur injury, and a further reminder that he is a legitimate ace, his price tag is going up. Now it’s unlikely he challenges Clayton Kershaw‘s record a.a.v (Kershaw is three years younger after all, and has an even-better track record), but what would Scherzer command on the open market should he win two Cy Young awards in a row?
Scherzer’s future might not be in Detroit, but one thing’s looking certain about the righty this winter; that $144 million figure will undoubtedly be put in the rearview mirror – offers beyond $200 million will be the new benchmark. All he has to do is get there in one piece – the performance is no longer in question – and he’ll be getting paid, big-time.
Not a bad outcome for such a “dumb wager”.
Having signed Max Scherzer to a one-year, $15.525 million contract to avoid arbitration this past winter, long-term extension talks between the Detroit Tigers and reigning AL Cy Young winner – and Scott Boras client – have recently been scrapped. In reportedly turning down what Dave Dombrowski called “a very substantial offer that would place him among the highest-paid pitchers in the game,” (Fox Sports‘ Jon Morosi putting the deal at six years, $144 million, placing Scherzer on the same pay trajectory as Cole Hamels), the 29-year-old may well have done the Detroit Tigers a favor.
History tells us long-term extensions for aging top flight pitchers aren’t often fiscally prudent. In 2013 alone we witnessed the end for numerous such signees; Johan Santana’s 6 year, $137.5M deal finally ended with him recovering from shoulder surgery (again), the lefty having provided only 109 starts and 717 innings to the Mets during their pact. Barry Zito remained largely healthy over his 7/126 contract with the Giants, but he provided less than 2 cumulative WARP in the time, all while rocking a 4.47 ERA. Roy Halladay retired with a whimper and a 6.82 ERA in 2013, having battled injuries throughout his two final years in Philadelphia – both costing $20M apiece. Even C.C. Sabathia showed worrying signs of ineffectiveness last year, and he still has another $96 million owed to him by the Yankees over the next four years. With Justin Verlander (7 yr/$180M, plus a 22M option in 2020) and Anibal Sanchez (5 yr/$80M, plus a 2018 option) already locked up through their thirties, and considering the outlined inherent risk in doing so much, did the Tigers especially need to add another long-term extension to the already-dangerous mix?
Thankfully for the Tigers, the quandary has at least for now, resolved itself; Scherzer will let his 2014 performance dictate his market value next winter, risking potential injury or decline in his search for a better deal. If he comes close to his performance over the last two years (during which time he’s been worth 11 WAR, per Fangraphs, and at 2.99, had the seventh best FIP in the majors), he’ll be a very expensive 30-year-old, a commodity that some team – unlikely to be the Tigers it seems – will happily overpay. Detroit will by then have another extension to worry about anyway.
With Scherzer – and presumably the money they cleared for him in trading away Prince Fielder and Doug Fister – off the table, Detroit management must now focus on what to do about Miguel Cabrera (and apparently already has). Set to make $22 million in each of the next two seasons, the twice-defending AL MVP will be a free agent after his age-32 season in 2015 should the Tigers not re-sign him before then – a decision which, mostly because of Albert Pujols, isn’t quite the slam-dunk you’d think.
It can’t be denied, the 30-year-old has been the best hitter in baseball over the last couple of seasons (though he’s been a huge negative both in the field and on the basepaths, hence why Mike Trout is technically more valuable). He’s beloved by the fans in Detroit, his presence in the lineup instantly elevating their team’s offense into elite territory. But he’s also bound to command a massive payday, potentially a problem – as ESPN writer Dan Szymborski pointed out back in November:
The next team to sign Cabrera, whether it’s the Tigers or another team, doesn’t get to purchase his previous six seasons, they get the right to his next six seasons. All good things come to an end… and Cabrera’s star is no exception. From stars to scrubs, the after-age-30 stories tend to be one of decline… The lessons of previous superstars should not go unlearned.
The “previous superstars” reference could hardly be less veiled – the respective career trajectories of Cabrera and Albert Pujols are eerily similar, something Jason Catania noted:
Pujols is right-handed; so is Cabrera. Pujols was a highly rated prospect who broke into the major leagues playing third base and outfield before settling in at first base; ditto, Cabrera. And Pujols enjoyed immediate, overwhelming success in his first full season—at the tender age of 21—triggering a decade of incredible, consistent production in which he hit for both league-leading average and power… Same goes for Cabrera.
With the similarly hefty sort of frame that Cabrera currently boasts (he might actually have been in better shape), the decline began for Pujols in his age-31 season, his last with the Cardinals. He hit just (!) 299/.366/.541, a great season in a vacuum, but all career lows for Pujols – who averaged .328/.420/.617 with 40 homers, 41 doubles and an OPS+ of 170 in his time with the Cardinals. Of course, it was then, entering his age-32 season, that the Los Angeles Angels signed him to a 10 year, $240 million contract; since then Pujols’ production has been marred by injury, his two year triple slash line falling to .275/.338/.485 in addition to his underlying skills continuing to trend in the wrong directions (he’s had an increasing strikeout rate, a decreasing walk rate and worsening plate discipline for the past five seasons now).
Cabrera – if allowed to get there – will be hitting the free-agent market one year older than when Pujols did back in 2011/12. Though there’s been no offensive drop-off so far, injuries began to worryingly take their toll last year; by the end of the season, problems with his hip, abdomen, and groin had slowed his previously torrid output at the plate to such an extent that Cabrera managed only four extra-base hits over 32 games in September and October. With ten years of experience under his belt too, 2014 will mark the exact same point in his career as when Pujols began to decline in 2011 – the season prior to his mammoth new contract.
The Tigers are all in. But for all their big moves and expenditure over the past few years, they’ve only two ALCS losses and one World Series trip to show for it – a sweep at the hands of a Pablo Sandoval-powered Giants in 2012. With Scherzer unsigned, Dave Dombrowski may have dodged a bullet, but in the wake of such perceived failure, the pressure to lock up Cabrera will only increase. With two years left on his deal though, the Tigers would do well to observe history – like perhaps they did in not ponying up for Scherzer – and ride out the public outcry for a new contract. After all, as Szymborski wrote, “He’s not likely to get more expensive, given that he’s at the absolute peak of his game.” If the Pujols-like slide begins, tough as it might be to quit while they’re ahead and cut ties with their franchise player, Detroit would thus avoid the albatross contract currently weighing down the Angels and be able to earnestly rebuild.
The clock is ticking; Detroit’s championship window is still open, but it could soon be fast closing. Whether the Tigers will accept as much remains to be seen.
In theory, you’d think a team boasting the back-to-back AL MVP (not that Miguel Cabrera will win again this year, as I wrote yesterday) as well as the last two AL Cy Young winners wouldn’t especially feel the loss of a light-hitting shortstop. But even considering the trade of slugging first baseman Prince Fielder, and the still-confusing deal that sent away Doug Fister, the Detroit Tigers are very much in win-now mode, meaning the loss of Jose Iglesias for potentially the entire season is a big dent in their hopes of finally capturing that elusive World Series pennant. So while Iglesias – who only profiled as the Tigers’ no. 9 hitter, but would have been a Gold Glove caliber defender – is maintaining that he’ll return before the season is out, the Tigers would do well to find an similar, if slightly more able-bodied, replacement in the meantime.
No matter what Dave Dombrowski is currently saying, it’s becoming more and more apparent via Detroit’s enquiries elsewhere that the prospective replacement is not currently in the Tigers organization. Acquired in the Fister trade, 25-year-old Steve Lombardozzi, despite having the reputation of a utilityman, neither figures to fit defensively nor have the bat to make up for his glove (I’m still struggling comprehending that trade obviously). Having appeared in 115 major league games, including starting 24 games at shortstop as a rookie in 2010 before the team traded for Jhonny Peralta, the 28-year-old Danny Worth has some experience at least. Unfortunately, his time has not borne fruit, his ML line of .242/.307/.315 in 246 PAs, like Lombardozzi, not enough to atone for his mediocre glove. Hernan Perez, who was on the Tigers’ postseason roster last year as a pinch-runner, has played only at the keystone since 2010, and is a career .256 hitter in the minors – nor has done anything to justify a call this Spring. 22-year-old Eugenio Suarez fits most comfortably into the defense-first profile of Iglesias in his wielding of a solid glove at short, but hit only .253/.332/.387 in 2013 – which would be fine were it not for the fact that it was in Double-A; Suarez evidently still has some way to go yet before Dombrowski can justifiably use him as an everyday starter on a team with World Series aspirations.
With slim pickings available in house then, one readily-available free agent looms large over Detroit – Stephen Drew. Almost instantly connected to the Tigers as soon as word came down on Iglesias’ injury, signing Drew would almost certainly prove to be a mistake on the Tigers’ part, hence why it was refreshing to quickly hear Dombrowski quash such rumors, even if he iterated he would keep the search in house. Drew is not looking for a short-term deal, as evidenced by his turning down of Boston’s $14.1M qualifying offer this winter, meaning Detroit would most likely have to ink the Scott Boras client to an expensive multiyear contract. Such a move would not only impede Iglesias’ development upon his return, but additionally cost the Tigers a compensatory first round pick in one of the deeper amateur drafts of recent years. Though their selection will be in the latter part of the round, that pick will still be immensely valuable, and could even be used as a trade chip should Detroit need additional help in season. In short, it’s not an asset worth losing for the privilege of shelling out a large contract to an average 31 year old whose offensive numbers were decking before a season in cozy Fenway Park, especially when he might only fill in for a season at best.
With Drew (hopefully) out of the equation, the Tigers still have options via trade. Rumor has it that the Tigers made a quick call to Arizona regarding the availability of Chris Owings. Young, cost-controlled, and potentially a future star though, talks understandably didn’t progress very far – the Diamondbacks probably lukewarm on jettisoning the leading candidate for their Opening Day shortstop job, or Detroit lacking the pieces available for such a move. In shooting for the stars however, Dombrowski may have in the process hit upon on a cloud; Arizona certainly have a surplus at short, a bevy including not only Owings, but Nick Ahmed, Didi Gregorious and Cliff Pennington. Ahmed is still too far away to be a viable option, but his future presence certainly makes the latter pair expendable. Gregorious would fit almost perfectly the void left by Iglesias, but Detroit would then have two very similarly aged players upon their incumbent’s return. Pennington, somewhat of a forgotten man behind the youngsters in Arizona, would thus present the best option; with just one year at a very reasonable $2.75 million left on his contract, the soon to be 30-year-old could fill in capably for the year before moving on when Iglesias comes back. Though he wouldn’t hit much in the interim, his glove would be above average at short, a factor which would not only keep groundball-happy Rick Porcello happy (though I’m sure moving Cabrera off third has already done that), but put a solid fielder next to rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos, who will need help covering the left side of the infield by most accounts. If that weren’t enough, the ZiPS projection of Pennington’s eventual WAR value is almost the same as Drew’s.
If Arizona’s riches don’t suit Dombrowski’s tastes, there are other potential avenues to be explored; Nick Franklin of the Mariners seems to be eminently available, though he has little experience at short. The same goes for Darwin Barney of the Cubs, though he is an excellent defender at second base if that counts for anything in a potential transition. The big name out there, if nowhere near the force he once was, is Jimmy Rollins. Clashing horribly with new Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg already, Rollins is certainly available, but his 10/5 veto rights and remaining salary ($11 million this season and a guaranteed $11 million in 2015 if he reaches 434 PAs this season) would be a serious obstacle to any move.
Losing Iglesias is a certainly a pain in the proverbial for Detroit, but they aren’t completely backed into a corner and needing to lash out into the market. The small move might yet be the right one. After a questionable offseason so far, Dave Dombrowski can easily get this one right, just as long as he stays away from Stephen Drew.
For the third consecutive day, my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series stays in the AL Central. Yesterdays celebration of exciting Indians pitcher Danny Salazar saw me most definitely jinx Cleveland’s chances of returning to the playoffs, a destination Detroit has made a habit of easily reaching recently. And while nothing has changed this winter regarding the expectations of the Tigers, in that they’re still widely viewed as World Series contenders, the pack of players that has fallen short for the past two seasons has been shuffled. In the biggest deal of the offseason, 1B Prince Fielder was sent from Motor City to Texas; Detroit in return received financial relief, positional liberation, and Ian Kinsler.
When word came down of this winters big-name swap between the Texas Rangers and Detroit, the prognostication that followed was decidedly mixed in immediately conferring a ‘winner’ of the blockbuster; whereas Dave Cameron of Fangraphs opined “If you’re a Tigers fan, this is a deal to celebrate”, ESPN’s Keith Law expressed a preference to “rather roll the dice on Fielder than Kinsler” (at least from a purely baseball perspective).
I initially agreed with Cameron that Detroit had got the better deal; after all, in swapping Fielder for Kinsler, the Tigers acquired much more than just the second baseman. In their exchange of two players with similar WARP levels, Detroit also secured significant financial relief – saving $76 million in future salary obligations. As Cameron put it: “The Tigers turned a $168 million +3 WAR player into a $92 million +3 WAR player, once you account for the cash they’re sending to Texas”. Not only that, but they freed up their problematic 1B/DH logjam – the loss of Fielder simultaneously permitting Miguel Cabrera to slide back across the diamond to his natural position (after being predictably overmatched at third for the past two seasons), while allowing Victor Martinez to occupy the DH position full-time. Such realignment would leave top prospect Nick Castellanos to slot in at third, Kinsler manning second in place of the departed Omar Infante, and the defensively-excellent Jose Iglesias holding down shortstop. In one trade, the previously imbalanced (and defensively woeful) Tigers infield was solved – which in combination with the savings offered, seemed to represent a coup for Detroit.
If only it were that simple.
No longer trapped by Fielder’s contract, Detroit seemed destined to make another move. Instead, GM Dave Dombrowski chose to… Doug Fister Heist.” href=”http://dugoutperspective.mlblogs.com/2014/02/17/hello-baseball-the-doug-fister-heist/” target=”_blank”>trade away their underrated cost-controlled starter Doug Fister to the Nationals in a deal for three lesser players? Not go out and sign the other starting outfielder (Shin Soo Choo, Carlos Beltran, and Curtis Granderson were all still available) which they have so desperately needed for the past two seasons? Neither lock up Cy Young Winner and impending free agent Max Scherzer to a long term contract, nor ensure the best hitter on the planet – Miguel Cabrera, whose contract expires in 2015 – finishes his career a Tiger? Sure, the Tigers replaced the departed Joaquin Benoit with Joe Nathan, but the other shoe – which in December especially, seemed to be dangling by a thread just millimeters from the earth – is still yet to drop.
Which brings us on to Kinsler, and more specifically, Keith Law’s fear that “Compared to Fielder, Kinsler is showing greater signs of decline”. It’s hard to argue with Law’s assessment; second basemen are notorious for their rates of attrition, and the numbers have been already begun trending downward for the Tiger’s new acquisition. Per the Baseball Professor, his rough indicators of production have experienced a sharp decline over the past three seasons:“In 2011, Ian Kinsler combined for 62 HR and SB. In 2012, that total fell to 40. Last year it was just 28.” Furthermore, playing mostly in the incredibly hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Kinsler slashed .277/.344/.413 and posted an OPS+ of 105 in 2013; for comparisons sake, the man he is replacing in Detroit – Omar Infante – had a mark of 113. Of perhaps even more concern for Detroit fans – and an admittedly popular narrative this winter – are the struggles of Kinsler away from Texas, a perception corroborated by his significant home/road splits; over his career (2399 PAs) the Arizona native bludgeoned his way to a .304/.387/.511 line at home, compared to just .242/.312/.399 on the road (2392 PAs).
All this is not to say Ian Kinsler will be a bust in 2014 – far from it. Once again, he will most probably be an above-average second baseman, perhaps even an All-Star again, and has apparently been working hard this offseason to take advantage of Comerica Park’s quirks and quieten down laymen like me. He’ll presumably offer a much more viable leadoff option than either Austin Jackson or Torii Hunter, and can’t help but add to Detroit’s absent running game. His contract (a front-loaded $62 million over the next four years) remains a bargain in comparison to Fielder, who also exhibited signs of decline in 2013 and is unlikely to age gracefully himself. The positional reshuffle subsequent to his arrival may even help crucial pieces stay healthier late into the season. But his new team have wholly failed to take advantage of the favorable situation created with the removal of Fielder, and look set to enter the season with the same holes that saw easily win the AL Central, but be bounced in the ALCS. It’s World Series or bust once again for the Tigers, and question marks surround their their new second baseman; fairly or not, the spotlight is on Kinsler.
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.