The first phone call came in early November. Shortly before he left for the General Manager Meetings in Orlando, Mike Rizzo let Tigers boss Dave Dombrowski know he wanted to discuss Detroit’s starting pitching surplus. Dombrowski agreed to talk in Orlando.
At the JW Marriott Grande Lakes, the GMs discussed three names. They “kicked the tires,” Rizzo said, on Max Scherzer, the reigning Cy Young winner with a year left on his contract, and Rick Porcello, a right-hander with inordinate experience for a 24-year-old. But the Nationals had the third name in mind from the start. They wanted Doug Fister.
“We really had identified Doug as our primary acquisition target as far as starting pitchers go,” Rizzo said. “We thought he was an undervalued asset.”
The discussions led to the striking of a deal Monday night that sent Fister to the Nationals and Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol and pitching prospect Robbie Ray to Detroit. The Nationals targeted Fister for a plethora of reasons. Their scouting reports and statistical analysis both led to glowing reviews. Fister would be under contractual control for two seasons. He stood 6-foot-8 and had no history of significant arm trouble. He pitched with poise and brought playoff experience.
“It’s a good day in the Nationals’ office when the sabermetricians and the scouts in the field see the players in the same way,” Rizzo said. “It makes things much easier for me. That’s what we had here.”
Rizzo raved about Fister’s precision, penchant for preventing home runs and ability to produce groundballs. Over the past three seasons, Fister ranks fifth in home run rate, ninth in walks per nine inning and 17th in groundball percentage among all starters. Fister also excels at controlling the running game — he has surrendered just 16 stolen bases in his five-year career.
The Nationals believe Fister’s strengths will only be extenuated in Washington. He will face opposing starters rather than designated hitters. The Nationals’ infield figures to suck up more of those groundballs than the Tigers’. New manager Matt Williams brought with him Mark Weidemaier, a coach whose sole job is to position fielders based on scouting and analytics.
“With our defensive alignment I think that he’ll thrive here,” Rizzo said. “He’s a guy that does a lot of the little things that will really translate into the National League.”
Compared to recent trades, the Nationals landed Fister for a cheap haul. Rizzo pointed to three deals — for Matt Garza, R.A. Dickey and James Shields — as proof of what the Nationals could have surrendered.
In 2011, the Cubs acquired Garza from the Rays for Chris Archer, who has blossomed into one of baseball’s best young right-handers, and top prospects Brandon Guyer and Hak-Ju Lee. Snagging Dickey cost the Blue Jays catcher Travis d’Arnaud and lefty Noah Syndergaard. The Royals shipped Wil Myers and other top prospects for Shields.
Advance metrics rank Fister next to, if not ahead of, Garza, Dickey and Shields. The Nationals gave up far less, by consensus, to acquire Fister. They told the Tigers, and other teams they dealt with, that they would not relinquish Anthony Rendon, Lucas Giolito or a collection of other young players.
“We made it clear to the industry we weren’t going to part with a handful of players,” Rizzo said. “To do a deal, to get a caliber of pitcher like Doug Fister with the makeup he has and the track record he has, we’re excited. We gave up three fine players to get him. You have to give to get. We felt that it was a fair, baseball deal. The trade did what they felt they had to do. And we filled the need we thought we needed to fill.”
The last time the Nationals swung a trade for a pitcher of Fister’s caliber was two winters ago, when they dealt for Gio Gonzalez. The Nationals quickly began work on a contract extension, but Rizzo said the Nationals have yet to broach those talks with Fister.
Fister, Rizzo said, will be the last significant starting pitcher the Nationals add. Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Fister will be the Nationals’ top four starters. Rizzo said he feels “comfortable” with the Nationals’ current choices for a fifth starter, but he left open that No. 5 starter’s identity.
Ross Detwiler would be the incumbent choice, but Detwiler is coming off a herniated disk injury that cost him the last half of 2013, and Rizzo did not anoint him. Taylor Jordan, Tanner Roark, Ross Ohlendorf and even prospect Sammy Solis could vie for the job in spring training.
“We feel that we’ve got the resources to have a quality guy sitting down there,” Rizzo said. “I think the difference this year from previous years, we’ve got great depth at that spot.”
The depth should continue for multiple seasons to come. Every starter the Nationals put in their opening day rotation, no matter who wins the No. 5 job, will be under Washington’s contractual control through 2015. Injury and rising salaries could upset the balance, but at present it appears the Nationals have all the pitching they need within their grasp.
“It’s comforting to know that you’ve got good quality starting pitchers that you control,” Rizzo said. “It doesn’t stop you from having a long term outlook on your roster.”