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December 3, 2013

Transaction Analysis

Dombrowski's Puzzling Deal

by Ben Lindbergh, Josh Herzenberg and Paul Sporer

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

DETROIT TIGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired LHP Ian Krol, UT-S Steve Lombardozzi, and Double-A LHP Robbie Ray for RHP Doug Fister. [12/2]

When Dave Dombrowski makes a trade, the correct first response is to wonder which opposing team was fleeced. The longtime Tigers GM’s track record with trades is such that it makes sense to tread lightly before labeling one of his moves a mistake. At the end of July, we ran a guest piece that assessed how far ahead or behind GMs have put their teams via trades over time, and the conclusion was clear: “No GM has been a more consistent [Trade WARP] winner than…Dombrowski.” You don’t have to look any further than Dombrowski's first Fister deal to see the way this usually works: the four players Dombrowski traded to Seattle to acquire Fister at the 2011 deadline combined for 2.0 wins for the Mariners, versus Fister’s 7.5 for Detroit in two-plus seasons (or 10-13, if you ask the other win-value variants).

That’s what makes Fister Trade II so tough to figure. Scroll down to see the full scouting takes on the two 22-year-old lefties Detroit acquired, but I’ll give you the summaries here: potential back-end starter, and situational lefty. And then there’s Lombardozzi, a 25-year-old utility guy who can’t hit or play shortstop, which leaves one wondering what exactly his utility is. That’s the haul for two years of Fister, who’d be more widely known as one of the best pitchers in baseball if he hadn’t spent the past few seasons on a staff stocked with even better arms (which won’t change in Washington), or if he'd thrown a little harder and missed more bats.

Here’s a list of the 10 best pitchers by FIP from 2011-13, minimum 500 innings pitched:

Name

IP

FIP

Clayton Kershaw

697

2.57

Cliff Lee

666

2.84

Felix Hernandez

670

2.87

Justin Verlander

708

3.07

Madison Bumgarner

614

3.07

Zack Greinke

562

3.09

Anibal Sanchez

574

3.11

David Price

622

3.14

Cole Hamels

651

3.2

Doug Fister

587

3.22

That’s the company Fister has kept since evolving from a moderate groundballer into a groundball beast (on one of the worst teams for a groundball beast to be on). Granted, he can’t equal the innings counts next to some of the other names on that table, thanks to two DL stints for trunk strains in 2012. (Fister hasn’t had an arm injury since 2010.) But he’s been among the game's most effective starters on an inning-per-inning basis, and too durable to be dealt for complementary parts.

Think about the going rate for free agent starters. Scott Kazmir just signed for two years and $22 million. Tim Hudson and Tim Lincecum went to San Francisco for 2/$23 and 2/$35, respectively. Fister is more desirable than any of those arms. What would Fister’s two years of team control go for, were they to be auctioned off on the open market—which, theoretically, should be affected by the rising price for free agents? Conservatively, let’s say $32 million—he might deserve more, but if this trade is any indication, his perceived value could be a little lower than he’s worth. MLBTradeRumors projects Fister to earn $6.9 million in arbitration this winter, and he’ll top that in 2015, so he’ll probably be paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $18 million over the next two seasons. That makes his surplus value something close to $14 million from 2014-15.

Would a team pay $14 million for six years of Ray, six years of Krol, and four years of Lombardozzi? If they had, let’s say, a depleted farm system, an aging core, and a younger starter (Drew Smyly) ready to step into the rotation? It sounds at least a little more reasonable expressed that way, but still seems unlikely, after factoring in what those players would cost. Every recent trade of a pitcher of comparable quality has brought back a bigger return—even, arguably, the Matt Garza move at this year’s deadline, despite the fact that Garza was in his walk year and wasn’t as attractive as Fister.

On today’s podcast, Sam Miller and I made the unavoidable James Shields comparison: Shields, over the two or three seasons prior to his trade to the Royals, was worth about as much as (if not less than) Fister has been over his past two or three years, innings advantage and all. But Shields (and Wade Davis) netted four prospects for Tampa Bay, including Wil Myers, a top-10 guy, while Fister didn’t bring back a top-100 guy. The Shields trade was a mistake for Kansas City, and it would be unfair to expect Dombrowski to find another such sucker, but even the second-best prospect who changed teams in that deal (Jake Odorizzi) was a more valuable asset than anyone exchanged in this one.

Maybe the Tigers wanted to try to prop open their competitive window, which was slowly creaking closed, and felt that they wouldn’t lose that much by dealing from depth. In that case, I’d argue that the deal didn’t improve them enough for the future, and that Smyly’s presence didn’t force them to deal a starter at a discount—instead, Detroit could have gotten creative and used Smyly to revive an extinct species, the 100-inning reliever. Maybe the Tigers wanted to save payroll room, either in response to some financial pressure we aren’t aware of or in order to pursue another big-ticket player. In that case, I’d argue that trading Rick Porcello would have accomplished the same goal without compromising the present; as a Super Two player, he’s projected to make more money than Fister anyway. We can tell from the way the Tigers have used both starters that they'd prefer to pitch Fister, or have to this point; if so, that suggests that they couldn't find a comparable offer out there for the younger groundballer.

Or maybe there’s something else we’re missing. We know Dombrowski’s not dumb, and his experience would suggest that he did his due diligence; he didn’t make this move on a whim. He has access to information that we don’t, and maybe something he saw swayed him (and would have swayed us, had we seen it)—some hidden sign of decline in Fister, a glowing scouting report on Ray*, an encouraging word from a friendly fortune teller. But it would have had to be a real whopper of an insight.

*In his post-trade conference call, Dombrowski called Ray "a guy that we think is a no. 1 left-hander," which is somewhat confusingly worded. (Is a no. 1 lefty an ace?) But even if the Tigers think Ray is a secret stud-in-waiting undervalued by most prospect evaluators, and were willing to surrender top talent accordingly, the Nationals would have had to hold him in the same high regard to justify Detroit's end of the deal.

It’s hard to believe that no other team would have offered a better package, had they all been aware of what Washington was about to give up (although the Nats were reportedly unwilling to budge, even on Taylor Jordan). It’s equally hard to believe that Dombrowski would have up and accepted the Nats’ offer without sampling what else was on sale.

So where does that leave us? Either Dombrowski failed to shop Fister around, every other team failed to evaluate Fister properly, or none of us on the internet knows anything. It's possible. We’ve certainly known nothing before. —Ben Lindbergh

Scouting

Robbie Ray was the Nationals’ 12th-round draft pick in 2010 and signed at the deadline for an overslot deal just under $800,000. Ray, a 6’2” left-handed pitcher, gained helium during his senior season of high school and jumped right into the organization upon signing, throwing just one inning in short-season ball before joining the Nationals’ South Atlantic League affiliate as a 19-year-old in 2011.

Now 22 years old, Ray possesses a three-pitch arsenal. He features a fastball that is consistently in the low-90s and will flash mid-90s on occasion. It features some run, but lacks the downward depth that typically results in a high groundball rate. Ray’s curveball is better than his changeup, although the latter offering showed some significant development throughout the 2013 season, and both could end up as average pitches.

Ray’s mechanics aren’t particularly smooth, but are very simple. He features a standard leg lift and a relatively short, quick arm action in the back. He throws from a high ¾ arm slot and repeats it well, although there is some rigidity in his delivery. I believe some refinement in timing—specifically, syncing his hip rotation with his arm action—would enable him to get more extension toward the plate, which could theoretically provide an uptick in perceived stuff. His command has improved throughout his minor league career, and though he does still have a tendency to get somewhat wild, the progression has been consistent.

Ray is a solid, if unspectacular, prospect who most likely profiles best as a back-end starter in a big-league rotation. Since his 142-inning workload in 2013 included a good showing in 58 innings at Double-A Harrisburg, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ray as a candidate for a call-up at some point in the 2014 season.

Ian Krol lasted until the seventh round of the 2009 draft before the A’s picked him and signed him to an overslot deal. After some off-the-field issues were addressed, Krol progressed through the A’s minor league system before being traded to Washington as a player to be named later in the three-team deal that sent Michael Morse to Seattle.

Upon arriving in the Nationals’ organization, Krol was transitioned into a bullpen role and immediately began to excel. After just 29 2/3 innings between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse, Krol had some success in the big leagues in 2013. He appeared in 32 games for Washington, all of which were in relief. Krol’s success out of the bullpen was seemingly a direct result of an uptick in velocity. When right, Krol’s fastball sits comfortably in the mid-90s with arm side run, which is significant when combined with his sharp 1-to-7 breaking ball.

Krol’s delivery can be described as both funky and violent, as it involves a lot of moving parts and a short, quick arm action that is reminiscent of Jonny Venters. Due to the violence of the motion, Krol has shown a tendency to work deep into counts and run his pitch count somewhat high. As a two-pitch pitcher, he profiles best as a relief pitcher long term, and because of his relative lack of command will most likely settle into a role that requires no more than an inning of work at a time.

Krol is most intriguing as a LOOGY candidate, as his career splits—while admittedly amassed in a small sample—lean heavily against left-handed hitters. With a plus fastball, a sharp breaking ball, and a deceptive delivery, it appears as though situational work would be the best role for Krol.

Just a year and a half ago, there were questions about Krol’s future and his ability to pitch in the major leagues. But today, at age 22, there’s a lot to like about him. He’s a big-league-ready bullpen arm, which the Tigers desperately need, and he features enough stuff to overcome his mechanical flaws. —Josh Herzenberg

Fantasy

The big fantasy winner here is Smyly, who was just waiting to see Porcello or Fister dealt to make room for him in the rotation. The 25-year-old lefty has pitched an impressive 175 innings in two seasons as a major leaguer, striking out 24 percent of the batters he has faced while walking just seven percent. He spent all of 2013 in the bullpen, but 95 of his 99 1/3 innings in 2012 came as a starter, and he acquitted himself well in 18 starts with a 3.79 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 22 percent strikeout rate, and 6.6 percent walk rate.

Smyly has been able to tame righties well enough to avoid a severe split, though he’s definitely been better against lefties, posting a .569 OPS against them compared to .736 versus righties. With just 76 innings on his arm in 2013, the limiting factor for Smyly will likely be workload, as the team is unlikely to ask him to replace the entire 209-inning void left by Fister’s departure. Bet on something closer to 160 and take anything else as a bonus. As for his results, target something around a 3.50 ERA and 1.20 WHIP, with enough strikeouts not to hurt you in any format. —Paul Sporer

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
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Acquired RHP Doug Fister for LHP Ian Krol, UT-S Steve Lombardozzi, and Double-A LHP Robbie Ray. [12/2]

The Nationals were a popular pick for a 2014 bounceback prior to this trade. Now they’re a near lock for one. A front foursome of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Fister—with a fight between Ross Detwiler, Tanner Roark, and Taylor Jordan for the fifth spot—gives them the best rotation in the National League, and maybe the best in baseball. Fister will benefit from pitching in front of a better defense than he has for the last few seasons, and the Nats will benefit from having him. And somehow, the sizeable upgrade cost them very little in either present production or high-ceiling prospects.

Back in January, Zachary Levine chronicled Mike Rizzo’s record of successful trades, giving some of the credit for the Nats’ strong foundation to his ability to outswap opposing GMs. Rizzo’s list of wins isn’t as long as Dombrowski’s, but based on our best information, it looks like it just got a little longer. A year ago, we were praising the Denard Span trade and writing that a strong Nats team had gotten stronger, with only their lack of a left-handed reliever marring an otherwise well-rounded roster. It’s time to start repeating ourselves. —Ben Lindbergh

Fantasy

Fister stood to improve in 2014 even had he stayed in Detroit, as he and Rick Porcello figured to be the prime benefactors of the Tigers’ revamped infield defense. The defense in DC is solid, with Ian Desmond and Anthony Rendon more than capable of scooping up the bevy of groundballs induced by Fister. Ryan Zimmerman is no worse than Miguel Cabrera was, and while Fister wasn’t going to be stuck with another year of Cabrera at third, any difference between the Tigers’ new third baseman and Zimmerman is offset by the advantage of going to the National League. (NL starters in 2013 had a 3.86 ERA, compared to 4.15 for AL starters.) Overall, it’s a wash, which means that Fister remains a strong mid-rotation option for any fantasy format. —Paul Sporer

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here
Paul Sporer is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Paul's other articles. You can contact Paul by clicking here

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