December 2nd, 2013
The Tigers are no longer a team with six starting pitchers for five spots. What they are without Doug Fister in their rotation remains to be seen. Detroit pulled off its second major trade in two weeks Monday night, sending Fister to the Nationals for lefty reliever Ian Krol, infielder/outfielder Steve Lombardozzi and lefty starting prospect Robbie Ray.
The move adds more flexibility on the Tigers payroll while adding some badly-needing young arms to a Tigers system that had been low on left-handed pitching. The immediate impact on the Tigers for next year, however, might not be known until the Tigers are done dealing this offseason.
It’s not a deal that addresses several short-term needs, as might have been anticipated had Detroit dealt reigning AL Cy Young winner and potential 2014 free agent Max Scherzer as rumors suggested earlier this offseason. Instead, the return package fills some smaller holes now and some long-term concerns later, while providing another sign the Tigers will try to keep the rest of their rotation intact, Scherzer included.
Fister was one of three Tigers starters who were arbitration eligible with free agency on the horizon. Like fellow starter Rick Porcello, he was two years away from free agency with a salary that was heading up. He was projected to make $6.9 million in arbitration according to MLB Trade Rumors.
However, Fister delivered as a Tiger, going 32-20 with a 3.29 ERA in 68 Tiger starts and two relief appearances. His 8-1 record and 1.79 ERA down the stretch in 2011 reflected his significant role in helping the Tigers to their first of three consecutive American League Central titles. Those numbers leveled out over the next two seasons, but his 14-9 record, 3.67 ERA and 208 2/3 innings pitched this year reflected a workhorse role within a loaded Tigers rotation.
In the postseason, meanwhile, Fister was a cornerstone of the dominant pitching that led Detroit to four postseason series wins over the last three years. His 3-2 record and 2.98 ERA in eight career playoff appearances includes a sub-2 ERA in the ALCS and World Series. He picked up only one playoff win the last two years, but delivered six quality starts in as many outings in that stretch, including six innings of one-run ball with seven strikeouts against the Red Sox.
Drew Smyly, who spent this past season as a lefty setup reliever, will slot into Fister’s old rotation spot, giving Detroit a lefty starter. With his pre-arbitration salary, the move will shed about $6.4 million from team payroll. The rest of the rotation is expected to remain intact for next year while the Tigers try to pursue long-term deals.
Smyly’s relief role, meanwhile, will be filled by Krol, who broke into the big leagues this year as a young lefty setup man. The 22-year-old wasn’t a specialist, though left-handed hitters batted .220 (11-for-50) against him with one home run, four walks and 10 strikeouts.
Lombardozzi is a switch-hitting, contact-batting role player with decent speed who can play infield and outfield. He batted .259 with 15 doubles, two home runs and 22 RBIs in 118 games for the Nationals in 2013.
The key arm in the deal, however, might end up being Ray, a hard-throwing lefty starter who ranked as the seventh-best prospect in the Nationals system from MLB.com’s midseason prospect rankings. The 22-year-old went 11-5 with a 3.36 ERA in 27 starts between high Class A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg, allowing 116 hits over 142 innings with 62 walks and 160 strikeouts.
Ray isn’t expected to compete for a Major League job right away anywhere on the staff, likely needing more seasoning at Double-A this coming year. In a system that has traded away several starting prospects over the past few years, however, he provides a much-needed youth infusion.
Nearly two decades after Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker made their place in history as one of baseball’s best double-play combinations, the Tigers will field a middle-infield tandem with the same jersey numbers. The team announced Monday on Twitter that their new second baseman, Ian Kinsler, will wear Trammell’s famous number 3.
The team expects Kinsler to man second base opposite shortstop Jose Iglesias, who donned Whitaker’s old number 1 when he became a Tiger at last summer’s Trade Deadline. The numbers should look familiar, albeit in reverse order, to Tigers fans who watched Trammell and Whitaker as teammates up the middle for nearly 20 years, from 1977 into the early ’90s. The two set an American League record for appearing in 1,918 games as teammates, and turned more double plays than any middle-infield tandem in Major League history.
Given their longevity and their success, the fact that any player can still wear those numbers on a Tigers uniform has always been a difficult topic in Detroit. The Tigers have only retired the jersey numbers of Hall of Famers with the exception of Willie Horton’s number 23. The Hall of Fame voting process has not been kind to Whitaker, who was knocked off the ballot after one year, or Trammell, who has not yet come close to the 75 percent selection needed for induction.
That said, no Tiger has worn number 47 since Jack Morris, a teammate of Trammell and Whitaker from 1977 to 1990. He has come closer to induction than any other 1984 Tiger, but still needs a boost this year in his 15th and final time on the ballot.
While Iglesias became the first player since Whitaker to wear number 1 in Detroit, Kinsler won’t be the first number 3 in Detroit since Trammell. Gary Sheffield donned the number during his Tiger tenure in 2007 and 2008.
Kinsler’s old number 5, which he wore for all eight of his seasons in Texas, is off limits in Detroit. That number was retired with Hank Greenberg, so Kinsler needed a new number. He wore number 22 at the University of Missouri.
The one question for the Tigers at Monday’s nontender deadline has been answered. Utilityman Don Kelly agreed to terms with the Tigers on a one-year, $1 million contract, thus taking him off the potential nontender list.
Kelly confirmed the deal in a text to inquiring reporters. The Tigers announced the deal shortly thereafter.
The $1 million salary represents the first seven-figure deal for Kelly. He made $900,000 in each of the past two seasons, including this past season on what was initially a minor-league contract with a Spring Training invite he signed just before camp after being taken off the 40-man roster. He essentially had to win his roster spot back, and he beat out Quintin Berry to do it.
As the Tigers headed towards Monday’s deadline for tendering contracts to arbitration eligible players, the question was whether they’d try to do the same thing this winter. The team traditionally waits until January to wrap up deals with arbitration-eligible players, but their one-year deal with Phil Coke a week and a half ago noted a change in approach. With some players, they wanted a deal in place before approaching the offseason. Kelly fell in that category, though his salary is by far the smallest of the eight arbitration-eligible Tigers.
Kelly’s versatility is well-known, and he currently stands as a left-handed hitter on the bench of a team that has a righty-heavy lineup at the moment in the wake of the Prince Fielder trade. The one factor that could change his role is the positional shuffle around the Tigers infield and outfield, notably if fellow left-handed hitter Andy Dirks becomes the primary reserve outfielder.
The roster picture, especially in left field and third base, remains a big question, but the Tigers can keep Kelly on the roster and then take a wait-and-see approach in Spring Training. If Detroit decides he’s no longer a fit, he can be released by March 15 or thereabouts for one-sixth of his salary, or just under $167,000. If the Tigers release him at the end of camp, they would owe him $250,000, one-fourth of his salary. Remember, Detroit took a similar approach with Brennan Boesch a year ago.