December 3rd, 2013

Three things on the Doug Fister trade

First things first: it’s rarely a good idea to judge winners and losers in a trade minutes after a trade is announced. For one thing, it’s hard to judge prospects and their impact so immediately. More important, it’s better to judge a trade’s context in the bigger picture of a team’s entire offseason.

What made trading Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson work for the Tigers wasn’t just the talent they got in return, from Max Scherzer to Austin Jackson to Phil Coke. It was the payroll it freed up for Detroit to sign Jose Valverde a month later, and extend Justin Verlander’s contract a couple weeks after that. Taken in context, a trade that at first signaled the closing of the Tigers’ contending ways ended up extending their window for several more years.

If the Tigers do end up re-signing Scherzer — still not a safe assumption, but no longer a lost cause — along with Miguel Cabrera and add a closer plus another bat, the trade takes on a different light. Dombrowski, for his part, insisted they’re not cost-cutting.

“We’re not cutting payroll,” he said. “We have a very, very hefty payroll. It’s one of the highest in baseball and it’s going to continue to be that way.”

Second point: Hard-throwing left-handed pitchers are always going to draw Dave Dombrowski’s attention. Always. It’s like Charlie Brown and The Little Red-Haired Girl. In this case, lefty starting prospect Robbie Ray looms as that guy.

“He’s the key piece,” one American League talent evaluator texted Monday night after news of the trade spread. He graded Ray as a legit prospect, potentially a third or fourth starter.

Ray was Washington’s seventh-rated prospect by MLB.com’s rankings, but he’d rank higher on Detroit’s list. That’s because trades, injuries and call-ups had so depleted the pitching depth in the organization that four of the five pitchers on Baseball Prospectus’ Tigers top 10 rankings released earlier Monday had been drafted in the last year and a half. Only Drew VerHagen had pitched above Low-A ball. None of them are left-handed.

“We have depleted our starting pitcher [depth] because we made some deals at the upper levels,” Dombrowski said. “You look at some arms that we’ve moved and again you can’t have everything. We have depleted ourselves in that regard and we don’t feel we have anybody knocking on the door other than Smyly. We did address that ourselves internally by drafting a lot of starting pitchers in the draft and a lot of college pitchers who we feel can move quickly.”

The more Dombrowski talked about Ray, the more he sounded like he had just acquired an impact pitcher in the big leagues. With a low to mid-90s fastball and the makings of a four-pitch arsenal, Ray’s stuff has the Tigers thinking highly of him.

“I think it was a key for us,” Dombrowski said of Ray’s inclusion. “It’s not only what you see in the minors. You see throughout Major League Baseball that young starting pitchers that are on the verge of pitching in the big leagues and being No. 3 or better starters, they’re hard to find and they’re becoming harder to deal [for].

“We felt it was important to get a guy who was knocking on our door to pitch at the big league level. We think this guy’s a premium young left-handed pitcher on the verge of pitching in the big leagues, and they’re not easy to find.”

Lastly, the longer this offseason continues, the more the Tigers look and act like a team that’s looking beyond the next year or two for a window. It doesn’t mean the win-now mentality has died, but it definitely signals at least an attempt to keep a winning team on the field for the future.

It began with the Jose Iglesias trade in July. It continued with the hiring of a first-time manager who not only hasn’t managed before, but whose playing career ended just a few years ealier. It continued with the Fielder trade, freeing up millions of dollars over the next seven years.

The future mentality hit its stride, though, with the Doug Fister deal. Detroit filled immediate needs in lefty relief and utility infield, but it now has its replacement for Scherzer if he leaves next winter, or Rick Porcello if he leaves a year later.

Hard to tell what it means for the franchise going forward, though a bloated payroll and an aging roster seem like two things they’re now trying to avoid. It seems like a strong hint, though, that the Tigers are now trying to extend their window of contention once more against a potentially aging roster and several superstar contracts. It could be a nod towards keeping this team in contention long enough to negotiate a new cable deal in a few years and reap the benefits other clubs are now enjoying. It could be an acknowledgement that keeping this team pitching staff together past the next year or two is fiscally impossible, given the escalating prices on pitching (though the Tigers didn’t have any talks with Fister about a contract extension, according to a source). Remember, collecting young, cost-controlled pitching (signing Verlander before free agency, trading for Scherzer and Fister) is how this team was built. Add Sanchez to that trio, and four of MLB’s top nine pitchers in Wins Above Replacement over the last three years wore Tigers uniforms according to Fangraphs. That same quartet also owned four of the top 21 spots in Fielding Independent Pitching over that same stretch.

Whatever it is, you can sense a shift in mentality helping provide a push.

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