Doug Fister trade means Washington Nationals GM Mike Rizzo has had good offseason already

The Post Sports Live crew discusses the Nationals trade for right-handed pitcher Doug Fister from the Detroit Tigers for Steve Lombardozzi and two other players. (Jayne Orenstein/PostSportsLive/The Washington Post)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist December 3, 2013

Mike Rizzo just had a good winter in one night. The Washington Nationals general manager just acquired Detroit Tigers 14-game winner Doug Fister for nothing.

Okay, not for nothing. Detroit got southpaw Robbie Ray, drafted 356th by the Nats in 2010, Steve Lombardozzi, drafted 571st in 2008 and Ian Krol, a “player to be named later” in a 2013 Rizzo deal. None was vital to the Nats’ plans for next season while Fister completes one of MLB’s best rotations and provides the comfort of a 2.04 ERA in seven postseason starts as a Tiger.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

When you can identify talent hidden inside unwanted players, then develop them to the point where they have genuine trade value and ultimately deal them for a 6-foot-8 postseason-thriving workhorse who over the past three years ranks 10th among all pitchers in Wins Above Replacement, that is the definition of a total front-office victory.

Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, one of baseball’s sharpest, probably didn’t get cheated. Ray has developed into a genuine hot prospect with 160 strikeouts in 142 innings this year in high Class A and Class AA. But who found him in the afterthought 12th round, then coached him up — Ray was 4-12 with a 6.56 ERA at Potomac one season ago — to a lefty ranked as the Nats’ No. 5 prospect? Rizzo and his gang did, then sold him high. Who was a key part of the Gio Gonzalez deal two years ago? Brad Peacock, drafted 1,231st.

Can the Redskins borrow Rizzo as their general manager on his day off?

Just as baseball began to mutter, “The Nats haven’t done anything this offseason. What’s up?” the game got its answer. Run-silent Rizzo, who divulges his general plans but never tips off his exact play, traded two nice spare parts and a Class AA prospect for one of the better pitchers in the AL in the past four years, a period when Fister averaged 189 innings and a 3.48 ERA. Yet he’s just 29 and under Nats team control through 2015.

Who’s Fister? Just the kind of slightly under-the-radar player who, in retrospect, seems like an excellent fit for the Nats but doesn’t get discussed like more prominent pitchers David Price and Jeff Samardzija, who were rumored as trade targets. Last year, the sinkerballer had a 3.67 ERA in 2082 / 3 innings, a total that only one Nats pitchers has ever topped in his career (Jordan Zimmermann last year).

The Nats now have as deep and proven a rotation as any team in baseball with Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Gonzalez, Fister and lefty Ross Detwiler. If the Nats fail to get the lefty reliever they want, Detwiler might go to the bullpen, where he has flourished in brief stints in the past, with Tanner Roark or Taylor Jordan among the rising candidates to fill out the rotation. Few teams have more depth at starting pitcher, all locked down through at least 2015.

For a team with October ambitions but occasional cases of nerves under pressure, the Nats also liked Fister’s makeup. In the ’12 World Series, Fister was hit in the head by a line drive that bounced all the way to the Tigers’ center fielder. The only question seemed to be how badly Fister was hurt, whether he would be carried off on a stretcher.

When Manager Jim Leyland got to the mound to find out if his pitcher had a concussion, Fister was ready, rattling off where they were, “second game of the World Series” and everything else except what he’d had for breakfast.

“You’re not going to take me out of the game,” he said.

Fister walked a man then retired the next dozen Giants. “I just felt bad for the baseball,” said Tigers outfielder Delmon Young.

Fister finally left a 0-0 tie in the seventh inning and got the loss when an inherited runner scored. In his six other postseason starts, his Tigers won all six games. Little shakes him. His first postseason experience was an emergency call to the bullpen in the second inning. After a few good innings, he crashed. Since then: he’s had seven starts, a 2.06 ERA and a win over the world champion Red Sox in the ALCS seven weeks ago.

“I have seen him pitch many, many times,” Rizzo said. Yeah? Like how far back, smart guy? “Fresno State.” Okay.

“Fister’s a big tough pitcher with terrific makeup. We thought he was an undervalued asset. We had an extremely strong Sabermetric report here,” Rizzo said. “It’s a good day when our Sabermatricians and the scouts agree. Makes things easier for me.”

Perhaps the biggest stat shocker is that in the sum-it-all-up number — Wins Above Replacement — Fister is 10th in all of baseball over the last three years combined (13.1 WAR). For comparison, Gonzalez has made two all-star appearances and gone 48-28 in those three seasons, yet he trails Fister in WAR by 13.1 to 11.5.

He’ll probably enjoy seeing Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Adam LaRoche go after his 54 percent groundballs more than Miguel Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta and Prince Fielder. In his last 818 innings, he’s allowed just 16 steals in 31 attempts. He has the best ERA in interleague play against the NL in recent years (2.04), indicating that pitching against lineups without a DH suits him. In a small sample size Fister even has a 1.78 ERA against the Nats NL East foes.

Krol has a power arm, got off to a hot start with the Nats but faded to a 3.98 ERA as his command degraded a bit. Utility man Lombardozzi is popular, feisty grinder, but you have to worship “intangibles” to think he’s a major subtraction. His exodus also smoothes the path back to the major leagues for the more talented Danny Espinosa who, at the least, should be a remarkable insurance policy at second and short.

But don’t sell Dombrowski short. When Detroit dealt Curtis Granderson to the Yankees in a three-team deal, everyone yelled, “They was robbed.” Yet the Tigers got back players who turned out to be Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, stellar center fielder Austin Jackson and useful lefty reliever Phil Coke.

So it’s probably wise to expect that Ray will become a part of the Detroit rotation for years. The Tigers may get many seasons of team control from the trio they acquired.

For the Nats, offseason silence has suddenly turned to success. With Rizzo, nobody ever seems to guess what’s coming. But when it does, they smack their foreheads and — with hindsight worthy of Dr. Watson — say that the solution was simple all along. Sherlock Holmes always hated that trait in Watson. Try not to tell Rizzo that his Fister deal was “obvious.” The best minds in any field bring a clarity that makes what’s difficult seem elementary — after the fact.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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