On Monday night, the Nationals took a major step towards upgrading their roster and addressing one of their offseason needs by trading for Detroit Tigers starter Doug Fister. To pry him away from the Tigers, the Nationals needed only to cough up infielder Steve Lombardozzi, left-handed reliever Ian Krol and left-handed starting prospect Robbie Ray. Many baseball analysts decried Detroit for not getting enough in return for Fister, but trades must be judged years later not just the day after.
Lombardozzi was a useful and versatile player and pinch hitter over the past two seasons, Krol turned out better than expected for a player-to-be-named-later from the Michael Morse trade and Ray, a hard-throwing left-hander who the Nationals were high on, could potentially blossom into a strong middle of the rotation starter in the majors. But giving up two fringe players now and a non-elite prospect for two years of a proven starting pitcher is a nice deal for the Nationals and filled a need in their rotation. Here’s a look at some of the ripple effects of the trade:
>>> The Nationals already had one of the best rotations in the National League and with Fister it only improved. Quietly, Fister was among the best starting pitchers over the past few seasons. Fister’s 4.6 WAR in 2013, according to Fangraphs.com, was higher than any of the Nationals starters last season, even Jordan Zimmermann’s 3.6 WAR. Fister’s 2013 WAR would have been the highest on 22 of the 30 pitching staffs in baseball. He is worth 13.3 WAR since 2011, which is ninth in baseball in that span and sandwiched between elite starters David Price and Cole Hamels.
Fister is also only 29 years old and has two more years of team control. He will be due roughly $7 million after a raise in arbitration this season. And, perhaps, it jumps to about $9 million in 2015. That’s two years of Fister for $16 million. The Nationals spent $24 million for two years combined of Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson.
Even though Fister posted a 3.67 ERA in 2013, advanced metrics show that his numbers should have been better — a 3.26 FIP and 3.42 xFIP — and that’s likely because he had a weak defense behind him. Imagine what Fister could produce with the Nationals’ more athletic defense and getting to face opposing NL pitchers for the first time in his career. According to ESPN, Fister’s career 2.04 ERA against the NL, including the postseason, is the lowest of any active starter with at least 75 innings. Gio Gonzalez’s numbers improved when he went from the American League to the NL, and Fister should, too, and the Nationals will benefit.
>>> With Fister in the fold, the Nationals’ most pressing offseason needs remaining are addressing the left-handed side of the bullpen and upgrading the bench. The Nationals have now traded away two potential 2014 left-handed relievers, Fernando Abad and Krol, and whiffed on luring other free agents, such as Manny Parra and Javier Lopez. They have been in contact with numerous free agent left-handed relievers and filling this need still appears to be a priority. Their left-handed relief options at moment: Xavier Cedeno, and putting prospect Sammy Solis and/or Ross Detwiler in the bullpen.
A potential way to address the need would be to fill it with a proven left-handed reliever, acquired through free agency or a trade and would undoubtedly command a fair amount of money or return, and pair him with Cedeno in the 2014 bullpen. Detwiler could remain in the rotation, Solis could start in the minors but be called up to the majors when needed, Tanner Roark could be the long reliever/swing man and Taylor Jordan could serve as starting depth at Class AAA Syracuse.
As far as the bench is concerned, the loss of Lombardozzi could also mean the return of a familiar face: Danny Espinosa. General Manager Mike Rizzo has said that the second base job next season will be open for competition, but Anthony Rendon is certainly the frontrunner. So let’s assume that Rendon wins the battle in spring training, then Espinosa would be the back-up. One of the Nationals’ underlying weaknesses over the last two seasons was the lack of major league-ready middle infield depth. When Ian Desmond missed a month with an oblique strain in 2012, Espinosa shifted to his natural position of shortstop and Lombardozzi played second. That worked well because Espinosa is a gifted defender.
But what if any of them got hurt? That’s why the Nationals rushed to sign slick-fielding veteran Cesar Izturis in 2012 even only for a few games. And last season, when Desmond needed a break when the struggling Espinosa was at Syracuse, Rendon was used at shortstop. The Nationals can’t hope to contend for a division title and more with Rendon as the back-up shortstop, nor can he be the fill-in for long stretches; he has far less experience there. Espinosa is an elite defender and having his glove in the majors and as the back-up shortstop next season would be a big help. His hitting will undoubtedly need to improve, which is why the Nationals should still scour the free agent market or explore a trade for a left-handed bat for the bench.
>>> Under Manager Matt Williams and coach Mark Weidemaier, the Nationals hope to implement defensive shifts. The Nationals were dead last in the majors last season in number of shifts and near the bottom in 2012. But Williams believes that putting defenders where the ball is most likely to be hit against certain hitters will lead to more outs. Teams like the Orioles, Red Sox, Pirates and Rays have done this successfully. It’s not simply, however, just shifting the defenders but getting the pitchers to throw the right pitches in the needed situations. Having a groundball machine like Fister will be a major help. Fister was fourth in the majors last season with a groundball rate of 54.3 percent, the highest of his career.
Only Cleveland’s Justin Masterson (58 percent), A.J. Burnett (56.5 percent) and Detroit’s Rick Porcello (55.3 percent) had better groundball rates. The Orioles and Red Sox didn’t have pitching staffs that induced a lot of groundballs but were efficient when using their shifts. The Pirates pitching staff led the majors with a 52.5 percent groundball rate and used defensive shifting successfully to get more outs than they had before without significantly overhauling their roster.
The Nationals were 11th in the majors last season in groundball rate (45 percent) just ahead of the Rays (44.6 percent). Stephen Strasburg was the most effective of the Nationals starters at getting groundouts (51.5 percent groundball rate in 2013). Adding Fister will produce even more groundballs for the Nationals and their shifting defense.