Revisiting Fister trade: Maybe Ray is actually really good
MAY 22, 2014 12:00p ET
Doug Fister’s got some nerve!
He’s also got that crazy fastball movement. Between the nerve and the movement, last night he sorta ruined my storyline for today’s column.*
* Which of course reminds me of this evergreen cartoon.
And then I thought to myself, “Self, if one game can ruin your story, it wasn’t much of a story.” I agree with myself! Fortunately, over the years I’ve come up with a solid strategy for exactly these situations: Don’t worry about it.
So I’m not worrying about it. The story might have seemed a little better if Fister hadn’t pitched well Tuesday night against the Reds. It might have seemed a little better if he hadn’t recorded his first win as a Washington National. It might have seemed a little better if he’d gotten hammered by the Reds.
He didn’t get hammered, and he did record his first win. He’s now 1-1 with a 3.93 ERA. He’s also struck out 13 batters this season, while walking just one. In his brief time on the mound, he’s looked exactly like the pitcher the Nationals thought they were getting when they forked over Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol, and Robbie Ray to the Tigers.
And how we howled last December when it happened!
The top Tigers blog hated the deal. Our friend Dave Cameron rated the deal from the Tigers’ perspective, the worst of the offseason. Keith Law (according to this article) said the Nationals got “30 cents on the dollar” in the deal. One executive, quoted by Jayson Stark, described the deal as “an epic head-scratcher.” In fact, 14 of 23 executives polled by Stark rated the deal the best of the offseason ... for the Nationals.
Granted, while there was a consensus here, it was hardly unanimous. The Detroit press was wildly supportive, maybe because Fister doesn’t throw hard enough. Or maybe because they’ve fallen under Dave Dombrowski’s considerable spell. But Ken Rosenthal, while initially skeptical, talked to both Dombrowski and Nationals GM Mike Rizzo and wound up reserving judgment.
A few days later, I revisited the deal with Ken’s column fresh in my mind. His reporting was solid, Dombrowski’s explanation cogent ... which essentially was that the Tigers targeted 15 young starting pitchers, and Ray was the only one they could get. Here’s me:
My first thought upon reading that: Shouldn’t there have been more than 15 guys? The guy the Tigers wound up getting, Robbie Ray, does not appear on Baseball America’s list of the top 100 prospects. But 43 other pitchers do (not including Masahiro Tanaka). Shouldn’t the Tigers’ list have gone at least 30 or 40 deep? That’s one thing I just can’t figure out.
But hey, maybe the Tigers are just that much better than Baseball America when it comes to evaluating minor-league pitchers. Oh, but what about hitters? Did the Tigers need a top pitching prospect? The Tigers don’t have a perfect roster. Even allowing that another Wil Myers might not have been available, shouldn’t the Tigers’ list have actually gone … oh, around a hundred deep? Before getting around to a pitcher who doesn’t show up on the list at all?
Again, though … it’s possible that the Tigers are just smarter than everybody else. If Robbie Ray turns into a good major-league starting pitcher, they’re going to look really, really smart.
But if Robbie Ray doesn’t turn into a good pitcher, I don’t see how the Tigers don’t come out looking foolish here, for the simple reason that Fister projects as significantly better than both Drew Smyly and Rick Porcello over the next two seasons.
I missed a way that the Tigers don’t come out looking foolish: Fister pitching poorly in 2014, most likely because he’s hurt. Which happened for a while! He opened the season on the disabled list and missed the first six weeks of the season. We didn’t know how well he would pitch when he did come back, but of course he’s pitched well. He’ll probably pitch well next year for the Nationals, too, because he’s really good.
Turns out Ray might be really good, too. Yes, he was a prospect before this season. But he was not, as so many of us took such great delight in pointing out, a great prospect. He’d posted some big strikeout numbers in 2013, but also big enough walk numbers that one might reasonably have wondered about his future progression.
Ray moved up to Triple-A this spring. His big strikeouts went down, his walks even more. He joined the big club a couple of weeks ago, and has pitched just three times: A couple of starts and a brief relief job. When he’s pitched, he’s been great. It’s only a dozen innings, plus another few dozen with the Mud Hens ... but what if this is really Robbie Ray? How much is nearly seven years of this Robbie Ray worth? Even if we figure a torn elbow ligament’s lurking among the highlights?
Oddly, Krol’s strikeouts and walks are both down, too. He’s got a sparkling ERA, but still profiles as a middle reliever. Meanwhile, Lombardozzi was traded to the Orioles before the season, for 37-year-old shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who’s essentially finished.
So it all comes down to Robbie Ray, still. If he’s really better than everyone except Dombrowski thought, the rest of us will look foolish. We might attribute that outcome to luck; if NFL executives aren’t smart enough to beat the draft, are baseball executives smart enough to beat the prospect lists? Dombrowski’s teams have won a million games. At some point we might begin to assume he knows things the rest of us just don’t.
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