Dave Dombrowski knows that trading Doug Fister for three little-known players is going to be an unpopular move.
He’s OK with that.
“I understand that some fans will be upset, because we’ve traded a very good player that they know for some players that they don’t know,” he said. “I’ve been in this position before, and I expect that reaction. I just believe this will be a very good move for us going forward.”
The team confirmed Monday evening that they had traded Fister for three young players. Detroit will get 25-year-old utilityman Steve Lombardozzi Jr., the son of the 1980s Minnesota Twins infielder, and a pair of 22-year-old left-handed pitchers, reliever Ian Krol and minor-league starter Robbie Ray.
“We are getting three quality players from Washington, including two that we are think are ready to help us immediately at the major-league level and one, in Ray, that is very close to that level,” Dombrowski said on his latest late-night conference call. “Ian Krol can step right into our bullpen and has the potential to be a No. 1 lefthanded reliever, Lombardozzi is one of the best utilitymen in baseball and Robbie Ray is a strong pitching prospect who is on the doorstep of pitching in the major leagues.”
Dombrowski readily acknowledged that it was difficult to trade Fister, who has been an important part of Detroit’s rotation during their three straight division titles. In his Tigers career, he went 32-20 with a 3.29 ERA, including 14 wins this season.
He’s generally considered one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball, because he’s a quietly efficient starter in the same rotation as Cy Young winners and finalists Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez.
However, the Tigers wanted to open up a rotation spot for Drew Smyly, who went 6-0 with a 2.37 ERA in 63 relief outings this season, and then pitched well in the postseason. Smyly came through the minors as a starter and made 18 starts for the Tigers in 2012, pitching well, but the acquisition of Anibal Sanchez late that season moved him out of the rotation.
Last season, he lost a spring-training battle to Porcello for the fifth spot, but pitched well enough in relief to eventually become Detroit’s setup man behind closer Joaquin Benoit.
“This was a hard trade to make, because Doug has done a superb job for us over the last three seasons, and he’s a quality person on top of that,” Dombrowski said. “However, we felt that is Drew is ready to take a spot in the rotation and Rick Porcello is ready to take on the added responsibility of moving up to be the No. 4 starter.
“Teams showed interest in all of our starters, but Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez are going to be Tigers for the long run, and it is hard to trade the pitcher who just won the Cy Young Award.”
There were reports that the Tigers were willing to listen to offers for Scherzer, who will get a large raise in arbitration this winter and then becomes a free agent after the 2014 season, but Dombrowski didn’t want to do that.
“We still hope that Max is going to be a part of this team for a long time, and we know Max wants that as well,” he said. “You can never make a declaration that you won’t ever move a player, but we are planning on having Max in our rotation going forward.”
The biggest part of the return package is Ray, considered one of Washington’s top prospects. The lefty split last season between High-A and Double-A, going 11-5 with a 3.36 ERA, and only turned 22 on October 1. Most projections have him starting 2014 in Double-A with a possible major-league arrival date of 2015, but Dombrowski has a more ambitious schedule.
“I think he’ll be in Toledo, and he’ll be ready if we need him at the major-league level,” he said. “We knew we had to get a good young pitcher in return for Doug, and this is someone who gives us depth at that position. He is a very strong prospect, who can turn into a very nice starter for us.”
Krol made his major-league debut with the Nationals in June, and will be in contention to fill Smyly’s role as a lefthanded reliever. He dominated Double-A early in the season, posting a 0.69 ERA in 21 outings, and was called up directly to the Nationals. It was probably a step too far, but he figured things out well enough to pitch in 32 games, going 2-1 while often only facing one or two batters. His spring training will determine if he starts the season in the Tigers bullpen or gets more seasoning in Toledo.
“He dominated Double-A when he was at that level, and he also pitched at the Triple-A level, but he showed that he’s capable of pitching in the majors right now,” Dombrowski said. “He’s a player that will help our bullpen right away.”
Lombardozzi, 25, is a switch-hitting utilityman who will replace Ramon Santiago on the roster. He can play second, third and left field and has filled in at shortstop in emergencies. He’s a career .264 hitter who rarely walks and has only homered five times in 257 career games, so, like Don Kelly, he isn’t expected to help offensively.
“I wouldn’t call him a limited offensive player,” Dombrowski said of Lombardozzi. “He hit .300 in the minors, and he’s a switch-hitter, which gives us some flexibility, especially when you consider how well Don Kelly hits right-handed pitching. This is a guy who can play in the middle of the diamond, so you can’t expect to get always big offensive numbers, especially when you don’t play every day.”
The move will also save money for the Tigers. Fister was expected to make about $7 million in his second year of arbitration, while the three players coming from Washington will make less than two million combined.
Dombrowski, though, said this deal wasn’t designed to dump salary or even free up money for Scherzer.
“That wasn’t in my mind at all,” he said. “We have one of the highest payrolls in baseball, thanks to one of the most generous owners in this sport or any sport. Obviously, you have to stay within reasonable limits while building a roster, but we will continue to have one of the highest payrolls in baseball going forward.”
Dombrowski expects his next move to solidify the closer role, whether that comes from signing Joaquin Benoit or another free agent. He said Monday that Bruce Rondon is recovering well from his season-ending injury, but that he’s not a strong contender to close in 2014.
“He could do it if we didn’t make another move, but I expect to make a move,” Dombrowski said. “It’s only December 2nd. There’s a lot of winter left.