Timing Is Everything In The Doug Fister Trade

Like many, it would seem, I was left pondering last night why, exactly, the Tigers felt compelled to ship off Doug Fister to the Nationals for a seemingly underwhelming return. We may just have received part of the answer, as Detroit moved quickly this morning to ink closer Joe Nathan. Though we don't yet know the terms of that contract, indications are that it will be a two-year commitment in the $20MM range. That sum almost certainly exceeds what Fister will earn over in the next two campaigns. (Fister is projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz to earn $6.9MM through arbitration this year.)

It became clear that the Tigers may have been operating at or above their payroll threshold when they shipped Prince Fielder off to Texas for Ian Kinsler. That fact became all the more clear with the latest deal . As FOX Sports' Jon Morosi wrote this morning, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski cited payroll "flexibility" as a motivator in shipping out Fister. And while Dombrowski emphasized that the club is "not cutting payroll," that statement certainly does not indicate that the club is adding dollars to the books either. Looking at the franchise's commitments, it entered 2012 with a $148.7MM payroll. As of this morning, the club already owes $102.7MM for 2013, which will jump by a projected $32.7MM for the club's arbitration-eligible players that have yet to agree to terms. Though Fister's salary is eminently reasonable for his performance, it represented a big chunk of the team's remaining war chest.

On the one hand, then, the deal makes some sense. The Tigers have rotation depth and need a closer. But that reasoning, standing alone, is not what has drawn the most scorn. As Dave Cameron of Fangraphs, among others, has argued, the return that he brought seems light compared to recent deals for high-quality starters. Even if Dombrowski was determined to clear salary, the argument goes, he surely ought to have been able to bring back more than a good-but-not-great starting prospect (Robbie Ray), a utility infielder with limited upside (Steve Lombardozzi), and an interesting but still largely unknown left-handed reliever (Ian Krol). 

While I find myself landing in the same camp as Cameron in that regard, it is reasonable to wonder whether the Nathan deal hints that other market pressures had a role here. Comments from Nats GM Mike Rizzo indicate that the sides had been in dialogue for several weeks about all three potentially available Detroit starters: Fister, Rick Porcello, and Max Scherzer. Presumably, that meant that the teams had already exchanged plenty of information and fully assessed each sides' potential trade chips. With last night's arbitration deadline and this morning's report of an agreement with Nathan, it could well be that Dombrowkski opted to pull the trigger on a deal that had already been well-vetted to make way for Nathan.

After all, we have not heard any particular suggestion that Dombrowski saw some special spark in Ray that made him desperate to pry him from the Nats. In fact, the Tigers reportedly preferred another young arm — Taylor Jordan — but were redirected to Ray. While we lack sufficient information to know conclusively, the broader market setting may well have played a substantial role in this deal from the Tigers' perspective. 

Meanwhile, from the Nationals' side, all indications are that Rizzo did an excellent job assessing the market, identifying his target, and then waiting for an opportune time to make a deal. "This was not an easy trade for [the Nationals] to make, either," Dombrowski said. But it sure didn't sound that way from listening to Rizzo. "It's a good day in the Nationals' office when the sabermetricians and the scouts in the field see the players in the same way," he said. "It makes things much easier for me. That's what we had here." 

To be sure, Rizzo emphasized that Washington had parted with significant talent and felt the trade was a fair deal. But, as he further explained, the club "really had identified Doug as our primary acquisition target as far as starting pitchers go" and "thought he was an undervalued asset." And the Nats' GM made clear that he felt that the team made out well in comparison to other recent deals. Compared to recent trades for Matt Garza, James Shields, and R.A. Dickey, Rizzo said, "we thought the player acquisition that we would have to give up was palatable."

Palatable, indeed. As I noted last night in writing up the deal, neither Lombardozzi nor Krol figure to be terribly difficult to replace in the immediate term. Though the Nationals have now shed yet another left-handed bullpen option, Rizzo has a history of digging up southpaws from unexpected places — Krol included. And Rizzo has indicated that one or both of Ross Detwiler and Sammy Solis could slot into the pen. Further, there are several young utility infield options who probably have more upside and may have pushed Lombardozzi for a role next year anyway, including Jeff Kobernus, Zach Walters, and even Danny Espinosa. (It is worth noting that Walters and Espinosa are both switch hitters who can play short and have better sticks from the left side. Walters swatted 25 home runs from that side of the plate last year in Triple-A.) Again, the timing of this deal made these two pieces largely expendable for the Nationals.

Timing seems to have been on RIzzo's side in one other critical way as well: he may well have sold high on the two key arms in this deal. Krol came to the Nats as a player-to-be-named later in last year's Michael Morse deal, coming to D.C. as an afterthought to fellow hurlers A.J. Cole and Blake Treinen. After dominating in Double-A, Krol got a quick call up to the big club's LOOGY-needy pen. He showed flashes of brilliance, but ultimately posted only a 3.95 ERA (along with a 4.69 FIP and 4.07 xFIP) in 27 1/3 innings. Giving all benefit of the doubt, his ceiling may be that of a late-inning stopper, and he does come with plenty of control. But given his spotty on and off-field history before coming to Washington, he is far from a sure thing. Whether or not Rizzo sold at the height of his value remains to be seen, but he sure did get more for him than he gave up.

Then, there is Ray, who, as Baseball Prospectus notes, is probably less valuable than the second-best piece (Jake Odorizzi) that went for Shields. And After lingering further down the list of Nationals' prospects for the last few years, Ray moved to fifth on the totem pole after the current season, in the eyes of Baseball America (subscription required). Though a jump in fastball velocity and nice strikeout numbers as a 21-year-old in Double-A have raised his prospect stock, Ray still is far from a sure thing. And he is at most probably the third-best young arm in the Nats' system, maybe lower if Taylor Jordan is considered and one is a Solis fan. As BA summed things up: "Ray’s plus fastball, athleticism and durable frame give him a chance to be a mid-rotation starter if he can develop his breaking ball. That remains a significant question mark … ." As with Krol, he may not be at peak value, but his value has certainly been on the ascent of late, with his most recently showing significantly elevating his attractiveness.  

This is not the first time that Rizzo has wheeled and dealed in this manner. Rizzo sent A.J. Cole to the Athletics as the headliner of the deal that brougth Gio Gonzalez to D.C., only to get him back at a cut rate in the aforementioned Morse trade. And after getting the better end of the deal that brought Morse to D.C., Rizzo extracted further value from the last year of the slugger's contract. In short, Rizzo has shown a propensity to trade on imbalances between perception and value.

As Rizzo's comments indicate, he saw Fister as an under-valued asset. He may well have felt the other way around about the pieces he sent out to acquire him. Indeed, as others have noted, most every team in baseball could have put together a package like the one the Nats gave up. But Fister was probably better than any open-market arm, and comes at a fraction of the cost. He adds nothing to the club's long-term payroll obligations, and because his salary will depend upon performance and remains non-guaranteed, he is an extremely flexible piece for the club. 

In this sense, the Fister trade actually increases the Nats' flexibility. The club has one of the best top four starting groups in the game at a budget price, and can choose among a host of options for the last rotation spot, depth, and bullpen work. (Among them: Ross Detwiler, Tanner Roark, Ross Ohlendorf, Nathan Karns, Jordan and Solis.) Having bolstered the rotation at a low cost — both in terms of prospects and committed cash — the Nats could be positioned, if they wish, to make another major move this off-season, especially if an opportunistic chance presents itself. And, of course, the other thing that the Nats pick up in this deal are the exclusive negotiating rights to Fister for the next two years.  

For the Tigers, on the other hand, the limited financial flexibility achieved comes at an enormous opportunity cost. This was not Fielder, whose fixed, long-term obligations were an imposing obstacle and who, some have argued, had negative trade value as a result. Regardless whether Drew Smyly will step in and keep the rotation strong, or whether Nathan throws as well as he has in the past, or even whether Ray ends up having a nice MLB career, this trade looks to be a miss for Dombrowski. Detroit gave up one of the game's more attractive pitching assets in exchange for a collection of relatively non-scarce pieces. Unless the rest of the league was truly unwilling to top the Nats' offer, it is hard to imagine circumstances in which that could make good sense, even if the timing of things forced the Tigers' hand to some extent.

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