The Washington Nationals acquired starting pitcher Doug Fister from the Detroit Tigers for three young players Monday night, pulling off a deal that caps one of the best rotations in the National League while subtracting only from the periphery of their roster.
The Nationals sent utility infielder Steve Lombardozzi, setup reliever Ian Krol and pitching prospect Robbie Ray to Detroit for Fister, a 29-year-old who brings to Washington a devious sinking fastball, three years of postseason excellence and an affordable contract that keeps him under the Nationals’ control through the 2015 season.
With a groundball-heavy style, the 6-foot-8 right-hander has become one of the league’s most reliable starters. Fister went 14-9 with a 3.67 ERA in 2082 / 3 innings for the American League Central champion Tigers last season. Over the past four seasons, all in the AL, Fister has a 3.48 ERA.
“This is an exciting day for the Washington Nationals,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said in a press release. “We feel we’ve added a talented, young veteran to our starting pitching corps. Doug is battle-tested through playoff experiences, and the depth he brings to our staff is exceptional. We are thrilled to welcome him aboard.”
In recent seasons, the Nationals had backed their top three starters — Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann — with expensive, one-year free agent signings. They added Edwin Jackson for 2012 and Dan Haren for 2013 at $11 million and $13 million. Fister will be owed roughly $7 million through a raise in arbitration, and the Nationals have a right-hander who will be eligible for arbitration again for the 2015 season.
The cost to acquire him appeared light to some across the sport, even those who did not want to bet against savvy Detroit General Manager Dave Dombrowski. “Rizzo didn’t give up any major pieces for a legit number three” starter, one NL scout said.
Lombardozzi, an Atholton High grad who still lived in his home town of Columbia, had become a beloved teammate and a fan favorite for his hustle and intelligence. As a freshman at Atholton, his coach played him on the grass for fear he could not make the throw across the infield. Now he’s a big leaguer, entrenched as a steady pinch hitter. But he also had a .264 batting average, a .297 on-base percentage and .342 slugging average over his first three seasons, a span of 257 games.
Krol arrived with the Nationals last winter as part of the trade that sent Michael Morse to Seattle. At 22, he helped stabilize the bullpen upon his call-up in early June, but his high-90s fastball became more suspect as the season wore on. He finished his rookie season with a 3.95 ERA over 271 / 3 innings. Without Krol, the Nationals will be pressed to add a left-handed reliever. Already, they have contacted numerous free agents.
The best player of the trio may ultimately turn out to be Ray, a 22-year-old lefty who reached Class AA Harrisburg this season. The Nationals gave Ray a $799,000 signing bonus in 2010, which at the time made him the second player drafted after the fourth round to be given a bonus that large. Ray went 11-5 with a 3.36 ERA this year. Baseball America ranked Ray as the Nationals’ No. 5 prospect behind pitchers A.J. Cole and top prospect Lucas Giolito.
“Ray is a very nice arm, made great strides this year,” said another scout for an NL team who follows the Nationals. “Will definitely factor into Detroit’s rotation sometime” in 2015 or 2016.
And so the Nationals surrendered a setup reliever, a utility man and a strong but not elite prospect for a pitcher who has become a groundball-inducing workhorse.
Over the past three seasons, Fister ranks fourth in groundball rate and ninth in walks allowed per nine innings. Only eight pitchers during the span have accumulated more wins above replacement than Fister, according to FanGraphs.com. His performance in that advanced metric rates between stars Cole Hamels and David Price.
“Hard to knock Detroit because of their recent track record of trade,” the second scout said. “But this really makes Washington better in ’14.”
Fister’s numbers should only improve in Washington. He relies on his infielders to turn grounders into outs, and in Detroit he pitched in front of an infield that included lumbering sluggers Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera at the corners. For the first time in his career, he will pitch to the opposing starting pitcher rather than a designated hitter.
Fister also brings a sterling playoff pedigree. In 2011, the Tigers acquired Fister from the Seattle Mariners at the trade deadline to bolster their October chances. Dombrowski and his staff called associates throughout the game to ask whether they thought Fister could handle the pressure of a pennant race and the postseason. The answer, every time, was yes. In eight playoff starts over the past three years, Fister has gone 3-2 with a 2.98 ERA.
Fister comes from Merced, Calif., where his father, Larry, served as a cop and a firefighter for 30 years. During the 2011 playoffs, Fister explained how his dad shaped his pitching mind-set.
“He was always stressing, what you do during practice is what you do under pressure situations,” Fister said then. “If you’re in stressful situations, you have to stay calm and rely on what you’re trained. That’s what you revert back to. That’s something that has always stuck in my mind. I tried to apply it no matter what situation I’m in.”
On Monday night, Fister landed in a new situation. In years to come, the Nationals may wish they had kept Ray, and local fans may be saddened to lose Lombardozzi. For now, the Nationals are thrilled to have snagged Fister, and the rest of the league could not see how he would not improve them. Simply, the Nationals finished Monday with a better than team than they started the day with.
The Nationals also signed right-handed reliever Manny Delcarmen to a minor league contract that includes an invitation to major league camp, according to his agent, Jim Masteralexis.
The signing gives the Nationals bullpen depth in the form of an accomplished reliever who last pitched in the majors in 2010.
Delcarmen, 31, spent 2013 in Baltimore’s organization, posting a 2.83 ERA in 54 innings for Class AAA Norfolk with 46 strikeouts and 22 walks. Pitching for Licey in the Dominican this winter, Delcarmen has struck out 18 and walked four in 141 / 3 innings, impressing Nationals scouts with a fastball that sat between 93 and 97 mph.