MLB

Did Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski Actually "Lose" a Trade Moving Doug Fister to the Nationals?

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For the second time in a few weeks, the Detroit Tigers pulled off a trade nobody in the baseball world saw coming, sending righty Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals for a package of three players including minor league lefty Robbie Ray. This deal doesn’t have the seismic impact of the Prince Fielder/Ian Kinsler trade from last month, but it is a head-scratcher.

The Nationals, on paper anyways, get a lot better with Fister to round out a rotation that now includes Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler. That’s fairly simple and straight forward. After the Tigers acquired Fister from the Mariners in July 2011, the 29-year-old only allowed 54 hits in 70+ innings, so a change of leagues should bode well if that’s any indicator.

As for the Tigers, the reaction has been almost universally negative, as in “we got what for Doug Fister?” The team was rumored to want to move a pitcher, possibly Rick Porcello or Max Scherzer to make way for Drew Smyly in the rotation. Trading Fister, under team control until 2016, isn’t outlandish, but you would think GM Dave Dombrowski would net more than a middling utility infielder (Steve Lombardozzi), a 21-year-old lefty reliever (Ian Krol) and Ray, rated the fifth-best prospect in the Washington system. The Tigers also cleared about $5 million in salary off the books, giving them some more flexibility to ink a closer or left fielder.

If there’s anything Tigers fans cling to, it’s that Dombrowski knows what he’s doing in trades. Since the Fister trade in 2011, which helped the Tigers get to the ALCS, Dombrowski has attained the unofficial title as the best trader in baseball. Trading is in his blood, as he made no less than two dozen deal running the Marlins in the 1990s, building up and then breaking down the 1997 World Series champions.

Here’s a look at some of Dombrowski’s significant recent trades at Tigers’ GM:

  • 2007, acquired Miguel Cabrera (and Dontrelle Willis) from Florida for Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller, Mike Rabelo, Burke Badenhop, Dallas Trahern and Eulogio De La Cruz.
  • 2007, acquired Edgar Renteria from Atlanta for Jair Jurrjens and Gorkys Hernandez.
  • 2009, acquired Aubrey Huff from Baltimore for minor leaguer Brett Jacobson.
  • 2009, acquired Jarrod Washburn from Seattle for Luke French and Mauricio Robles.

  • 2009, acquired Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson, Phil Coke (and Daniel Schlereth) for Edwin Jackson and Curtis Granderson. (Three way-deal with Yankees/D’Bbacks also included Ian Kennedy.)
  • 2011, acquired Doug Fister (and David Pauley) from Seattle for Francisco Martinez (minors), Charlie Furbush and Casper Wells.
  • 2012, acquired Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante from Florida for Rob Brantly, Brian Flynn and Jacob Turner.
  • 2013, acquired Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder.

It’s not a perfect track record. The Renteria, Washburn and Huff deals didn’t quite pan out, although ultimately the Tigers didn’t give up much. Even the Cabrera deal had a downside, with Dombrowski inking Willis — who was completely shot by then — to a three-year, $29 million deal without throwing a single pitch in Motown. Still, the Tigers have made three straight trips to the ALCS around the core of players Dombrowski’s acquired through trades. We won’t know about the Kinsler/Fielder swap, but most hailed it as a masterstroke to move the remaining seven years of Fielder’s salary off the books.

What’s most interesting about the Fister trade is Dombrowski usually works the other way around. He’s the one who deals prospects for established Major League talent. You get the sense the Tigers are far from done this offseason as they pursue a World Series pennant. It appears Detroit used some of the Fister money to sign closer Joe Nathan to a two-year contract, so clearly Monday’s trade is part of a larger plan for Dombrowski. Ray, of course, could be a useful cheap internal option for the Tigers, who’ve dealt away most of their top-rated arms in recent years.

Dombrowski’s track record with trades earns him the benefit of the doubt, but judging this in a vacuum, it is hard to see how a consistent starting pitcher with Fister’s numbers over the last three seasons would go for such a small return. The faith that Dombrowski “knows what he’s doing” is basically the only way to justify this deal on a cold December morning.

On the other side, the Nationals got a steal, although Fister’s WHIP did jump from 1.194 to 1.308 from 2012 to 2013, while his strikeouts per 9 decreased from 7.6 to 6.9. That said, a move to the National League where he’ll be a fourth or fifth starter in Washington suits Fister well even if he never comes close to replicating his first 70 innings in Detroit. With the Braves losing Brian McCann and Tim Hudson, the Nationals are clearly the favorites in the NL East.

Related: Prince Fielder Trade: Money Overshadows Fascinating Deal

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