Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Fister acquisition thoughts and fallout


What a steal; Fister joins the Nats rotation.  AP Photo/Paul Sancya via

What a steal; Fister joins the Nats rotation. AP Photo/Paul Sancya via

Wow; I got into work today and opened up the Washington Post and saw that the Nationals pulled off what I think is a huge steal of a trade, getting Detroit’s Doug Fister for three fringy guys in Steve LombardozziIan Krol and Robbie Ray.

Taking the very glass is half empty view of the guys we just sent away: we get an accomplished starter for (frankly) two edge-of-the-25 man roster players in Lombardozzi and Krol, and a prospect who I like but who scouts never have really taken to in Ray.  Lombardozzi took a step back this year offensively and despite being the kind of flexible, multi-positional player that teams crave this year (think of how Tampa Bay uses Ben Zobrist) he was exposed at the plate and may have already shown what his peak is (backup infielder).   Krol flashed up the farm system and looked fantastic in his early MLB appearances, but slumped enough to be demoted back to the minors in search of some consistency; he’s got a great arm but clearly is a one-out lefty.  Robbie Ray is a very young and accomplished starter who has operated in the shadow of his fellow high school draft-class mate A.J. Cole and has mostly out-pitched him, but the scouting reports on Ray seem bearish on his eventual ceiling (4th starter at best?).  

If i’m a Detroit fan, I’m scratching my head here.  A backup infielder, a matchup-lefty with just a few months of MLB experience, and a AA prospect who is probably still 2 years away?  That’s the return for a cost-contained, effective 4th starter for a team who’s oft-repeated mantra is Win now?  I just don’t get this deal for the Tigers.  Yes Fister faces arbitration, and his salary may rise up to the $6-$7M range, and yes I guess Detroit has a ready-made replacement in Jose Alvarez or perhaps Drew Smyly, but why are you trading away depth at a time like this?  Is this simply a money-saving deal?   The team saves somewhere in the range of $6M in arbitration for Fister (paying MLB mins or less for all three guys they got back).  As others have pointed out, the Tigers really must have liked what they saw in Robbie Ray to make him the clear centerpiece of this deal.

Some other quick responses in the Baseball analysis world: Keith Law hates the deal for Detroit with this quote summing it up nicely: “A lefty reliever, a backup at second and a non-top-100 prospect is just not a good return for two years of one of the top 30 starters in baseball.”   Jayson Stark thinks Detroit made this deal for payroll relief and seems to indicate that Detroit’s GM Dave Dombrowski is already on the defensive.  Matt Fillippi at HardBallTimes questions Detroit’s mindset.   Grant Brisbee wishes his team (the Giants) could have done this deal.  Dave Cameron says the Nats “stole” Fister in this deal.    So, I’m not being a homer in saying that, on the face of it, this is a fantastic deal.

Fister posted 3.67 ERA in 2013 pitching in front of a horrible Detroit defense in the American League, so you would have to think that he’s going to immediately get that typical 1/3 to 1/2 point improvement on his ERA moving to the NL and facing weaker lineups and pitchers on a regular basis.   Not to mention going from one of the worst infield defenses to one of the better ones.  Meanwhile, despite being called a “4th starter” Fister quietly has been one of the best pitchers in the league over the last three years; in Cameron’s fangraphs post he has a list of the top pitchers by various measures over the last three years and Fister easily makes the top 15 arms in the game by most measures.  He’s a 4-WAR arm slotting into a near-replacement level WAR slot (Dan Haren) for half the price.  And the team basically gave away spare parts and a decent but not elite prospect to get him.

Other positional fallout from this for the Nats off-season:

  • Lombardozzi was still penciled in a backup infielder/utility guy.  Does this open up an opportunity for Zach Walters to earn a spot?  Will the team buy a cheap utility guy on the FA market to couple with Scott Hairston?  Does this pave the way for Danny Espinosa to return to the majors?
  • Krol’s departure thins the already thin internal loogy ranks to choose from, which to me indicates that one of two things now happens.  We either try to buy one of the limited remaining professional lefties on the market or we go into 2014 planning on converting a here-to-fore starter (either Ross Detwiler or Sammy Solis) into a left-handed option out of the pen.  Unless we think Xavier Cedeno is the answer.

Summary; Great move by Mike Rizzo, and I have to immediately agree with Law’s sentiment that this easily gives the Nats one of the 2-3 best rotations in either league heading into 2014.  I didn’t think Starting Pitching was an area of greatest need necessarily … but boy he’s upgraded over the 4th starter/$13M experiments the team has been running out for the past two years in a hurry.


24 Responses to 'Fister acquisition thoughts and fallout'

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  1. To quote the Auburn play-by-play guy, “Oh my Lord in Heaven.” Like everyone else, I’m going “what am I missing?” This seems way too good to be true. Dombroski just isn’t that dumb, is he? For there to be a down side to this, Ray would have to become the next Gio.

    Lombo’s a folk hero, but let’s be honest, he barely belongs on an MLB roster. Why didn’t the Tigers at least ask for Walters or Espy? (Not that I’m complaining.) Those two guys would seem to be completing for the Nats’ utility slot, along with Koberus, who had a much higher OBP than either last year plus can fly.

    Kudos to Rizzo for finally going for an advanced metrics stud rather than an overpriced erratic flamethrower. Another plus with Fister that most commentators have missed is that he also has very low mileage on his arm for a guy turning 30. It might be good to try to do a Gio-like deal and sign him now for three or four years.


    3 Dec 13 at 10:16 am

  2. The only thing I can think of is this: Dombrowski must *really* really like Robbie Ray.

    Todd Boss

    3 Dec 13 at 10:27 am

  3. I have been trying to see it from Det’s standpoint, because as KW says, Dombrowski isn’t stupid.

    So assuming that the need for payroll reduction is real, let’s just take that as a given that he had to dump Fister or Porcello (I am assuming in part he wants payroll space to sign Scherzer). I think Fister is expected to make a little bit more, so let’s also conclude that he is the one to go. What does he want back?

    First, more payroll space by using min salary guys instead of vets. So Krol for Coke (saves $3mish?) and Lombo for Santiago (saves $1-2m?). Now he is looking at a payroll savings of $11m this year. Lastly, he wants a SP prospect for two years down the road when Porcello is gone, and for an injury hedge. So, ok, I get the structure of the trade, it makes sense.

    We then have to ask, is this the best package he could have gotten for those pieces? I have no idea. Seems low to me, but I am not a prospects guy. They apparently really like Krol, and I agree. I discount the falloff last year as a 22 yr old who never pitched above A ball coming into the season. He has a live arm and a little bit of a funky delivery. Lombo – well, no, he isn’t very good. You are left with Ray, and the scouts have been raising their views of him this year. Everyone is very impressed with his velo spike.

    Could Fister be damaged goods? I am assuming that Rizzo is smart enough to know that Fister isn’t hurt.

    So maybe it isn’t as nuts as it first seems. Seems impossible to fill in pieces from other teams that could replace ours, to evaluate whether they could have gotten more with the same structure. I still love it for us, but it could work out fine for DET. I would bet on a Scherzer extension and adding a Choo or Beltran.


    3 Dec 13 at 10:37 am

  4. Detroit Free Press columnist says we need to “Trust” Dombrowski for this apparently lopsided deal. After all, this is the guy who swindled Fister and Swerzer from others, and getting two great arms for someone they’ll likely lose in a few years anyway seems like a potentially really good deal. Or maybe he’s still upset with Michigan’s silly decision to “go for two” against Ohio State last Saturday.


    3 Dec 13 at 11:36 am

  5. The problem with what the Detroit Free Press columnist says is that the Nationals have Fister for more than “a few months.” They have him for 24 months plus the option of gaining a draft pick for him if they let him walk or signing him long term.

    Lombardozzi is nothing special. He is a good clubhouse guy and accepts his role and Detroit seems to be big on that but I do not understand why they would trade for him and then bring back Don Kelly on the same day. Redundant pieces.

    Krol is a good pickup and Davey misused him a bit last year. I think he grades out to be an average reliever with some upside given his age.

    Ray could turn into a Gio Gonzalez type pitcher in 2 years. High strikeout/high walk rate high pitch count type of guy. I still think for the difference in pay between Porcello and Fister they should have dealt Porcello. I also think a lot of teams probably would have given them the same return they got for Fister for Porcello.

    I see where the Tigers are signing Joe Nathan now to be their closer. I guess they wanted to free up the money for that move like Wally pointed out.


    3 Dec 13 at 11:44 am

  6. PDowdy – except I wouldn’t have given it to Nathan. Beltran seems like the perfect fit there. Still kind of shocked that DET didn’t insist on Storen too. Wouldn’t Rizzo still do that deal? Wouldn’t you guys? FWIW, I think Old Boss is right that Dombrowski gets the benefit of the doubt if I am a DET fan. The guy has been pretty good. Arguably the best of the ‘big market’ GMs, with Cashman (I know DET isn’t a big market, but Ilich makes it one).

    Btw, the other part of this deal that made me happy was that Rizzo held on to Jordan. I am a big fan of his. I mean, if that was the deal breaker, I think that I would have caved to get Fister, but kudos to Rizzo for keeping him. My ideal rotation scenario has Jordan winning the 5th slot, Det to the pen (along with Solis, Ohlendorf, Storen, Clip, Stam and Sori), and Roark, Karns and C. Young to SYR for depth.

    And now for the greedy part: c’mon Rizz, let’s get a back up catcher. They are flying off the board. I am hoping for a Suzuki return; if not, maybe Arencibia, although it wouldn’t make me giddy.


    3 Dec 13 at 12:49 pm

  7. Very odd off-season so far for the Tigers. Why pay for a 39 year old closer?

    Todd Boss

    3 Dec 13 at 1:46 pm

  8. If Detroit had said “Fister for Storen” straight up would you have done that deal? hell yeah.

    Lets face it; the Nats didn’t give up any real depth to get a 4-win pitcher with 2 more years of control! Robbie Ray is perhaps our 5th-7th best prospect (5th by BA, 6th on my list, 7th on Robbie Ray has to at least become as good a pitcher as Fister is right now to make this deal even. And that’s a tall order, no matter how good the kid looks.

    Todd Boss

    3 Dec 13 at 1:49 pm

  9. I will give Dombrowski the benefit of the doubt until the offseason is over. I would have moved Porcello over Fister and I would have gone with someone else other than Nathan at closer. Balfour would seem like a similar option but a lower price tag. They also chose not to exercise Jose Veras’ option after a strong showing which was odd.

    I do think that they have the resources to extend Scherzer, sign Nathan AND add a big bat still since they cleared a good deal of payroll by not resigning Infante, Benoit, Peralta and Veras and by trading off Fister and Fielder. It would not shock me if they end up being Choo’s landing place or Beltran.


    3 Dec 13 at 2:17 pm

  10. I don’t understand why the Rays would resign Jose Molina and then trade for Ryan Hanigan. They let a perfectly usable lefty reliever that they traded for go last night who was only projected to make $1.5mm and now they add a 3rd catcher who costs more. Kind of strange offseason across baseball to this point.

    I was hoping that Rizzo might get in on Hanigan as the backup catcher but maybe this makes Jose Lobaton available from the Rays.

    Arencibia could be interesting. A lot of power but no on base skills whatsoever. Also not a great defensive reputation but he still may be better than John Buck if he is cheap. My top options to be the backup have all come off the board already or found new homes via trade. I liked Brayan Pena, George Kottaras, Jose Molina and Ryan Hanagin for the spot.


    3 Dec 13 at 2:21 pm

  11. Dowdy: Trading Fister cleared $6M give or take (assuming he gets $7M in arbitration and then you have to pay mlb min salaries to Lombardozzi and Krol). Can you get a pitcher of Fister’s value for $6M on the open market? No way. I think that’s pretty much what the baseball world is saying right now as they shake their heads in disbelief.

    Todd Boss

    3 Dec 13 at 2:31 pm

  12. Backup Catcher: why am i not really that interested in who the Nats get for a backup catcher? Or if they get one at all? Is it because Ramos caught like 20 straight games in the late season to prove he’s reliable and solid? I dunno. Maybe its because backup catchers just aren’t that sexy 🙂

    Todd Boss

    3 Dec 13 at 2:39 pm

  13. I completely understand that aspect of it. This trade looks awful for Detroit. This is the type of package I would have assumed it would take to get Rick Porcello not Fister. I really don’t understand why they felt the need to use Fister to clear payroll instead of Porcello.

    My point was that I won’t judge Detroit’s offseason on this move alone given Dombrowski’s recent success. Detroit doesn’t need another starter since they have Smyly ready to be the 5th starter next year. They really cleared more than $6mm by trading Fister since now Lombardozzi gets a utility spot at the league minimum instead of signing someone like Punto for $1.5-2mm. Krol takes a lefty specialist role in the bullpen for the minimum which given the market for lefty relievers means they saved a couple million dollars there too. Kinsler costs less than Fielder, Iglesias costs WAY less than Peralta did last season and Castellanos (for 3rd base) costs less than Infante did last year. That means they have A LOT of cash available to make some big moves and everyone knows Mike Ilitch wants a championship so I expect that money to be spent.

    I absolutely love this deal for the Nats though. Fister is FAR better than Nolasco, Vargas, Hughes and Kazmir and will cost significantly less for 2 years than any of those guys will cost their current teams. I think Fister stacks up to James Shields favorably and he cost an arm and a leg for 2 years last offseason. Great job by Rizzo. Just when I was starting to question some of his moves he pulls this off.


    3 Dec 13 at 4:07 pm

  14. Only reason backup catcher concerns me is Ramos’ injury history. He has missed at least half a season each of the last 2 years. Pushing him too far over 100 games next year would be asking for trouble in my opinion so I think it would be to the clubs advantage to have someone better than the in house candidates in place in case an injury occurs again.


    3 Dec 13 at 4:08 pm

  15. Agree that back up catcher is an important spot. Ramos’s great but shouldn’t be expected to catch 120 games. Even if he could, that is still 42 games for someone else (~200 PAs). Would like to see someone who doesn’t suck in that spot, especially with risk that Ramos only catches 70 games.


    3 Dec 13 at 5:24 pm

  16. Did someone forget to tell teams the winter meetings aren’t until next week? This has been a crazy active few days across the league.


    3 Dec 13 at 6:54 pm

  17. Todd, good piece, and I agree with you here.
    This is another example of how terrific the Draft & Development people are here. Robbie Ray was a 12th round pick and this year he was a 22 year old pitching well in AA. He was our best left handed prospect.
    That said, a terrific trade.

    Mark L

    3 Dec 13 at 7:02 pm

  18. Todd, as always, this is the place to go.

    I have a few thoughts on the trade, mostly positive.

    What I especially liked about this trade was that philosophically, it fits with what I was recommending in my post on the Rule 5 draft about Rizzo positioned to deal from the farm. Namely, that Rizzo dealt replaceable parts. Rizzo did not break the farm to get a pitcher that would help the team. To me, the comparison is the Gio deal; Gio was more highly touted and a lefty, but Fister is quality and would be the #2 on a lot of teams, because his numbers and performance and PERFORMANCE defines the capability of the starter. Rizzo created roster space with the trade. Moreover, he retains highly attractive chips.

    I do not think we have seen the last major deal by the Nats, and there may be even more. I do not think the Nats are out of the Price sweepstakes, either. They have just strengthened their negotiating position on several fronts. More below.

    Lombardozzi is replaceable most directly by Kobernus, or even AAA Josh Johnson. I know Rizzo has touted Espinosa, but at this point no one can presume Espinosa will show that he is capable of hitting anything in a part time role, let alone as a regular. Having him on the 25 man as a replaceable part will not suit him or the team, and there are cheaper and better options. The market for potential starting shortstops is a sellers market. I know Espinosa has depressed value now, but if you don;t believe in the guy, then next year he will be a flop and his value will be worthless. So I view him as a trade chip and part of a package for a team that will believe in his ability to bounce back and be a Gold-Glove SS or 2 with power and speed. Yes, Rizzo’s pitch, which someone is bound to buy into, perhaps someone trying to shed salary and who really really needs starting middle IF options.

    Kobernus does not get the love he should. He almost made the Tigers, then came back and really stepped up his game. He can steal a base as well as anyone on the roster right now, so he truly adds an element for a team that aims to be aggressive. And the guy can hit. He deserves the shot he will get to make this team.

    How intriguing that the team was vocal about holding Taylor Jordam back. I see that as tactical also, that he is part of negotiations elsewhere and all teams know he is valued, by others and by the Nats. But the Nats just got a pitcher whose pedigree, contact and ground balls, is exactly that of Jordan. What gives? I just don’t see Fister and Jordan in THIS rotation together if the market for Price comes down because others have given up their chips, Tanaka has signed, other FA have signed for overpayments, etc. I also see no reason why Rizzo cannot target another LH starter who has the same “young, controllable, ascending, accomplished, inning eater” qualities. Just as we did not see Fister coming, we will not see what Rizzo is up to. But Jordan clearly would bring quality and Rizzo still has him.

    As for Fister, we will see the club’s plan soon enough. Gio signed an extension – was he sick of being traded and that was why? Maybe. How does Fister feel about now being on his third team, and a team this good? I’ll bet he’d like to stay if he can. Like Span, the team can defer this decision to see one more year of its baby starters to see who takes a leap forward. If this year makes it obvious that Jordan, Cole, Treinen (yes Treinen is someone I am watching closely), Karns, Purke, Solis, Schwartz, Hill, and Giolito leap forward, then the team will have a grace period to decide whom they need to be locking up long term — Fister, Zimmerman, or Strasburg.

    I was in the column of those who were very hopeful about Ian Krol and about Robbie Ray. Krol was a minor league player of the year for the A’s and ended up in the bullpen last year of a team that was loaded with starting pitching (Harrisburg) No one anticipated his success, and were he to have been merely promoted to AAA, he might have ended up pitcher of the year in another year that Jordan was not tearing it up. And he is very young, young enough to develop. If Dombrowski (who made the Langston trade of Randy Johnson, no?) sees this in him and can groom him as such, then Krol is undervalued by us.

    As for Ray, he took a big leap forward last year. He had some dominant games in Harrisburg and then would follow up with meh games. But he is young and still light years ahead of what he was at Potomac. I do not think the Nats valued him as much as we (I) do, which is in part because he is a lefty. LeCroy was once quoted as wondering how Ray was going to have the same success as a strikeout pitcher at AA and was almost surprised by his success there. So this hint, from someone clearly valued in the braintrust, tells us that there is something that we don;t see in Ray that the talent evaluators see that said, as I noted below, “sell high(er).” Recall that Danny Rosenbaum once looked pretty impressive in AA too. I know they are different pitchers, but I am talking the “chicks dig the left handed starter” talk.

    I do not think the Nats would have depleted the farm to do this trade. I see a deal of expendable parts. So that tells us two important things. That the team believes in the future of Solis (and possibly Purke), both of whom can now start the season at AA as starters. I don’t see Solis coming to the bigs as a lefty reliever when there is clearly quality at the ML level in free agents and the Nats have replaceable parts to trade (including Eury Perez and Espinosa and Matthews) who will not disrupt the core.

    Purke is a curious story as well. He has one option left. I cannot imagine he will be a person to keep on the 25 man roster in 2015 with THIS roster, unless it is he who wll be worked into the bullpen. So I still wonder whether he is being contemplated as a trade chip. But the team has shedded Ray and Krol, two lefty arms who have had starter success, and would not do that if the stocks (including Hector Silvestre) were bare.

    Lombardozzi was the team’s best pinch hitter. So while he was never going to be great here, a team that acknowledges its bench troubles will be accounting for that.

    Again, as in my earlier post, I feel the Nats have lots of tradeable chips in their system. The Sickels/Law and other folks have been proven to undervalue the Nats prospects relative to how the rest of baseball sees them. That is good news. There are still lots of people in the system that can be sold high for a Giancarlo Stanton type of talent. I would be thrilled to see a heavy bat come in that can play a solid 1B defense.

    Three other intriguing and related events this winter are 1) the excellent play of Taylor, prompting the adding of him on the 40 man and giving the Nats their “speedy, excellent defense and good BA” CF surplus of value. 2) Sandy Leon’s bat waking up, giving the Nats a far better solution to their backup catcher needs in house relative to the high priced flotsam that is out there. 3) Tyler Herron’s success as a closer, giving reinforcements behind the many righty bullpen arms at the ML level. Just sayin.


    4 Dec 13 at 6:57 am

  19. PS – Detwiler is also on the downswing, and did not pitch in the winter as was recommended. I can see him being swapped in a deal that brings LH pitching if the team is skeptical that his health would ever enable him to a long term starter option. No way does the team see him as a long term bullpen option. With folks coming up. IF the Nats do not believe in him long term, it’s time to get what they can for him before they REALLY can’t get for him.

    Also, I was refering above to Ray in 2012 at Potomac, and calling attention to Krol as a starting pitcher.

    On with the hot stove!


    4 Dec 13 at 7:06 am

  20. On the WP website, in the comments section some one posted a comment that said, “Its going to be harder to replace Lombardozzi than people think.” And the first immediate comment afterwards was something to the effect of, “Yeah, finding middle infielders with sub .300 OBPs is really hard in this league.” I laughed out loud at my desk. Finding a mediocre backup middle infielder in this league is about as hard as hitting water if you fall out of a boat. Kobernus absolutely could be a ready made replacement, as could Walters in my opinion.

    Espinosa: Yes i generally agree that he’s lost his spot here and that he should be traded. But why would the nats trade him now, at the absolute nadir of his value? I’d start him in AAA, let him try to prove he’s hitting again, play him at SS again to highlight the fact that he’s probably a better defensive shortstop than even our own Desmond, and see if we can get something good for him.

    Jordan got exactly the same “tease” that both Milone and Peacock got before being dealt. Could we be seeing the same thing with Jordan and Roark? I’d take my chances there if moving those two guys along with a couple other prospects brought an A-list player back.

    Todd Boss

    4 Dec 13 at 8:58 am

  21. Wow, Rob Neyer just kills the Tigers in the wake of the Fister and Nathan deals yesterday.

    Todd Boss

    4 Dec 13 at 10:21 am

  22. Todd Boss

    4 Dec 13 at 12:37 pm

  23. You trade him if he is only going to get worse. That is why management has the responsibility of judgment call. If THEY think he is fixable, no. If they do not, yes. He has value in the uncertainty of his decline. The nadir is when his trajectory is certain.

    They had to make the same judgment on Lombo. A year ago, lots of folks wondered whether he could be an everyday player for a lesser team.

    Maybe he will.


    4 Dec 13 at 2:43 pm

  24. I don’t have an opinion on Espinosa. He was hurt, to be sure.


    4 Dec 13 at 2:44 pm

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