Late Monday evening the Washington Nationals made their first major transaction of the offseason, sending infielder Steve Lombardozzi, left-handed pitcher Ian Krol, and left-handed pitching prospect Robbie Ray to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for right-handed starting pitcher Doug Fister. This swap quickly resolves the biggest offseason need for the Nationals, namely adding another quality starting pitcher behind Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann, and finding a replacement for now departed Dan Haren.
Fister, only 29-years-old, had another excellent season in Detroit in 2013, giving the Tigers a 14-9 record with a 3.67 ERA, a 1.308 WHIP, and 159 strikeouts over 208.2 innings pitched. For his 5-year major league career, Fister has a 3.53 ERA, a 1.213 WHIP, a 6.3 K/9 ratio, a 1.8 BB/9 rate, and a noteworthy 49.3% groundball rate over his 818.2 innings pitched.
Fister has evolved as a pitcher in recent seasons, primarily throwing a heavy 89-90mph sinker, along with a sharp mid-70s curveball, while mixing in the occasional split-finger, four-seam fastball, and a cutter. Somewhat overlooked due to his unimpressive velocity and playing his career in Seattle and Detroit, Fister could even improve in Washington pitching in front of an above-average defensive infield and lineups now lacking the designated hitter. Under team arbitration for two additional years, Fister is scheduled to make approximately $7 million in 2014.
One of the more popular Nationals players in recent seasons, Steve Lombardozzi carved out a niche off the bench the past three seasons with his switch-hitting capability, ability to play many defensive positions, and scrappy, hard-nosed style of play. A career .264/.297/.342 hitter, Lombardozzi is under contract through 2017 and should serve as a valuable reserve for the Tigers next season.
Krol, the final piece in the Mike Morse swap last winter, is a 22-year-old left-handed pitcher who shifted to the bullpen after arriving in Washington. Krol began the season in Double-A, and quickly received a promotion to Washington, giving the Nationals a 3.95 ERA with 22 strikeouts in 27.1 innings pitched last season. With extreme splits against lefties verses righties (.593 OPS vs. LHBs, .957 OPS vs. RHBs), many will quickly label Krol a pure lefty on lefty reliever, but considering his blazing fastball and quality curveball, he should mature in time into a quality 7th or 8th inning reliever.
While the only minor leaguer in this 4-person swap, the 22-year-old Robbie Ray is the centerpiece of this trade for the Detroit Tigers. Ray, a left-handed pitcher drafted in the 12th round in 2010 draft, blossomed in 2013, starting the year in High-A and posting a 3.11 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 84 innings before forcing a midseason promotion to Double-A. At Harrisburg, Ray continued his excellence with a 3.72 ERA and 60 strikeouts in 58 innings pitched.
A young lefty with a solid three-pitch repertoire consisting of a 91-96mph fastball, a quality curveball, and an improving changeup, Ray rapidly developed into one of the top prospects in the Nationals’ organization. The top left-handed pitching prospect in the organization, Ray’s loss further adds to the dearth of lefties in the Nationals’ farm system.
This trade is quite a coup for the Washington Nationals, as the team filled their primary offseason weakness without parting with anyone significant to the team’s short-term or long-term plans. Certainly both Lombardozzi and Krol are young, cheap major league players, but both can be replaced with in-house options. Without question parting with Robbie Ray stings, as he was the top left-handed pitching prospect by a significant margin in the organization, and has a reasonable chance of pitching in the big leagues late next season. If everything comes together for Ray, he could be a valuable #4 starting pitcher in the majors sometime in 2015.
However, considering the current market rate of starting pitching this winter, with inferior pitchers like Scott Kazmir and Tim Lincecum receiving hefty annual salaries, and Jason Vargas signing a 4-year contract, the Nationals were wise to trade from depth to round out their starting rotation. Fister is exactly the type of pitcher the team needed, a reliable playoff-tested starter under contract for two more seasons, which should coincide with the maturation of prospects AJ Cole and Lucas Giolito.
Any time a general manager can trade a utility infielder, a reliever, and a great but not elite prospect for two seasons of a top quality starting pitcher, you must make that trade. In fact, I keep waiting for Bud Selig, like an overzealous fantasy sports commissioner, to “Veto” this trade, as this feels like one of the most lopsided deals in recent history in favor of the Nationals.
NatsGM Grade -> A