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Trade Retrospective: Tigers trade Doug Fister to the Nationals

This is not one of Dombrowski’s better outcomes for a trade, but to be fair, that bar is pretty high.

ALCS - Boston Red Sox v Detroit Tigers - Game Four Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

For the fourth straight offseason, BtBS is looking back on some of the biggest trades from years past. Check out all the entries here. This series was first started in 2016 by Spencer Bingol, who has been part of the Red Sox Baseball Operations department for the past two years. Congratulations to Spencer on the team’s recent World Series championship!

A few weeks after trading away Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler, Dave Dombrowski struck again. He traded Doug Fister to the Nationals in exchange for Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol, and Robbie Ray. The trade looked like a big win for the Nationals, but as we all know, Dombrowski always seems to know what he is doing.

In this trade retrospective series, trades will be evaluated based on what was known at the time. That is the only fair, logical way to evaluate trades and strip luck out of the equation: process over results. Having said that, we will still take a look at how the trade worked out for both parties.

The Deal

The Tigers were coming off a disappointing ALCS loss to the eventual World Champion Red Sox. The team was in good shape to win the division for the fourth year straight year in 2014, but Dombrowski knew that the team had problems to fix. He fixed one by acquiring Ian Kinsler early in the offseason and unloading a lot of Prince Fielder’s salary. The move made sense, but his follow-up was more confusing.

Doug Fister was one of the better pitchers in baseball at the time of his trade. He was just coming off a season where he had a 3.92 RA9 and 3.9 WAR, and over his 2.5 years in Detroit, he accumulated almost 10 WAR. His strikeout rates were always on the low side likely due to a lack of velocity, but he did have excellent control, and he was able to generate a groundball rate of over 50 percent over the two years prior to his trade.

The Nationals were coming off a bit of a disappointing season the year after their first ever division win and playoff appearance. They lost the division by ten games and missed the playoffs by four. The 2013 season was just one of what has been multiple confusingly disappointing seasons in a year where the Nats were expected to be among the best in baseball. Regardless of why the Nats failed to impress that year, they were primed for some positive regression in 2014.

The starting rotation was in good shape, but it needed some depth, as all rotations do. Adding Fister for for the price it cost them was an excellent move. He would be an upgrade over whomever was the fifth starter he was pushing out, as well as adding depth.

Lombardozzi was barely a bench player, and one who could barely hit at that, with a career line of .264/.297/.342. Worse still, it was not clear if he could play shortstop, a skill which is necessary for a player to become a utility infielder. Krol was a lefty reliever who got crushed by right-handed hitting. Ray was easily the best acquisition in the trade as a top-100 prospect, one with a ceiling as a mid-rotation starter. The problem was that it looked like it would be a long road to reach that ceiling, if he reached it at all. He had command problems and lacked any plus pitches.

Given Fister’s talent and the fact that he still had two years left on his rookie contract, this was a poor return for the Tigers. Perhaps teams were scared off by his lack of velocity and poor strikeout rates, but I am surprised they could not get more for him. As per usual, Dombrowski is smarter than all of us, though his mistake came after the trade.

The Results

Fister’s first year in Washington made it look like Dombrowski’s luck had run out. He had the best year of his career by runs allowed, turning in a 2.85 RA9 and 4.4 WAR. However, his peripherals were not nearly as good. His 3.6 BB% was tied with teammate Jordan Zimmermann for one of the best in the league, but his 14.8 K% ranked in the bottom ten among qualified starters. As a result, he had a 3.61 DRA, which is still good, but not nearly as good as his RA9 indicated, likely because he was benefiting from weak contact and a high strand rate.

Everything fell apart for Fister the following year in 2015. I actually saw him in person in Citi Field that year on May 3rd. It looked like he was doing well at that point with a 3.28 ERA through four starts, but ERA is even more deceiving than RA9 in small samples. His three unearned runs resulted in a 4.46 RA9, and it gets worse. His control was no longer elite, and he had struck out a paltry 10 percent of batters faced.

Fister threw 6 13 shutout innings against the eventual NL pennant winners that day, but I remember thinking he looked terrible. His fastball was averaging only 87 MPH. Sure enough, he finished with a 4.89 RA9 that year and was roughly replacement level, so the Nats had no problems letting him go in free agency. He has been with a different team each year since, but he has not been any more effective. The Rangers declined his option for 2019, and he is currently a free agent.

Lombardozzi never played a game for the Tigers. He was traded to the Orioles for Alex González in March 2014. He hit only .288/.297/.329 in 74 PA during his only year in Baltimore. He bounced around a lot since then, barely getting any major league playing time. He is currently a free agent.

Krol was about as bad as can be during his two years in Detroit with a 6.23 RA9. He was traded in November 2015 to the Braves for Cameron Maybin and cash. He actually had a good year in Atlanta with a 3.35 RA9, which was really strange given his .355 BABIP. Unfortunately, he turned back into a pumpkin in 2017 by turning in a 6.24 RA9. He only had a cup of coffee in the majors with the Angels last year, and he is currently a free agent.

Ray had an 8.16 RA9 in only 28 23 IP during his first year with the Tigers. Apparently Dombrowski decided he had seen enough, so he traded Ray to the Diamondbacks in a three-team deal that got him Shane Greene and sent Didi Gregorius to the Yankees. Ray had a decent first year in Arizona with a 3.95 RA9 and average peripherals. It appeared that he took a big step back in 2016 as a result of a 5.42 RA9, but he actually pitched a lot better than that. He had a 4.22 DRA, and his strikeout rate improved dramatically to 28 percent. The problem was a low strand rate and a .352 BABIP.

Ray followed that up with a career year in 2017, striking out nearly a third of batters faced. He had a 3.17 RA9 and 4.9 WAR! As expected, he saw more regression than expected last year, but he still struck out batters at a high rate. Unfortunately, his control plummeted, as his walk rate shot up over 13 percent. His 4.00 RA9 does not look bad on the surface, but it does when you consider how good the Dbacks’ defense was. The good news is that he still has two more years before free agency to figure things out.

Tigers Results

Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Robbie Ray 6 -0.8 $0.2
Steve Lombardozzi 4 0 $0.0
Ian Krol 5 -1.1 $1.0
Total 15 -1.9 $1.2
Baseball Reference, Spotrac

That looks pretty bad. The table does not tell the whole story, though.

Nationals Results

Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Doug Fister 2 4.5 $18.6
Baseball Reference

Even considering that the Nats got almost all their value from Fister in his first year, the deal still worked out well for them. As for the Tigers, granted this was not one of Dombrowski’s better results, but he did well in getting rid of Fister too early instead of too late. Where Dombrowski erred was in trading away Ray so soon. Had he held on to him this trade would have worked out much better for the Tigers.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.