LAKELAND, Fla. — More than an hour before Friday’s game against the Washington Nationals, utility man Steve Lombardozzi, donning a Detroit Tigers cap and a blue pullover, shook hands with former teammates near the batting cage. Left-handed reliever Ian Krol was already in the clubhouse, and left-handed pitching prospect Robbie Ray was off at the adjacent minor league complex. The three former Nats, sent to Detroit in the Dec. 2 trade for pitcher Doug Fister, are all eyeing an opportunity in their new organization.
The Nationals are eyeing something more from Fister, a right-hander who has been among the top starters in the game the past few years.
The deal was hailed as a coup for the Nationals — Lombardozzi is a part-time player, Krol is hoping to stick in the Tigers’ bullpen and Ray was among the first round of players reassigned to minor league camp this week — but inflammation in Fister’s elbow leaves some doubt.
“I’m very excited for this opportunity,” said Lombardozzi, a former standout at Atholton High. “Everything happens for a reason. It’s definitely a good place being here. I get a chance to play with some unbelievable players.”
The Nationals coveted the 6-foot-8 Fister, one of the best groundball pitchers in baseball, because they felt he was an undervalued asset and needed another starter to bolster the rotation. The Tigers wanted to move left-handed starter Drew Smyly, who is 24 and cheaper, into the rotation after stashing him in the bullpen last season. Right-hander Max Scherzer, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, was a year away from free agency, and both right-handers Rick Porcello and Fister had two years of team control remaining on their contracts.
Fister, expected to slot in behind Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez, threw a bullpen session Friday, his first mound work since his last Grapefruit League start was scratched because of elbow soreness last week.
The Nationals are being cautious with Fister but are optimistic because the MRI exam of his elbow showed just inflammation, no structural damage. Detroit General Manager Dave Dombrowski said Fister did not have any elbow issues with the Tigers.
“We have to make sure we progress slowly to make sure we have him for a full season and not rush him too quickly and lose him,” Nationals Manager Matt Williams said.
Healthy, Fister is a known commodity. To acquire him, the key to the deal for the Nationals was the potential of the 22-year-old Ray.
“There were a lot of clubs that had interest [in Fister], but there were very few clubs that had the combination that was going to make it work,” Dombrowski said. “Washington was one of the clubs that did with some starting pitching depth, more at that Double-A, Triple-A level.”
Dombrowski said there were “a lot” of young pitchers they liked with the Nationals but Ray was the Tigers’ top target. The Nationals picked Ray in the 12th round of the 2010 draft and lured him away from the University of Arkansas with a signing bonus of $799,000. Ray struggled in 2012 but posted a 3.36 ERA in 2013 with 160 strikeouts over 142 innings at Class A and AA.
“Anytime you trade a known for an unknown, you’re not going to win the favoritism from the public appeal,” Dombrowski said. “. . . Hopefully Fister pitches well for them and the guys that come to us play well. But they’re not going to help us as much this year as Fister would help them this year. They fill some needs for us this year and hopefully . . . a guy like Ray comes along in the future and gives us a real solid pitcher.”
The Tigers view Lombardozzi as a switch-hitter who can fill in at shortstop and third base and left field or play second base daily for an extended amount of time. Injuries to Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias and left fielder Andy Dirks could push Lombardozzi into more playing time. Krol is projected to make the opening day roster, but Ray was the key.
“You don’t make the deal, though, for guys you figure are a bullpen guy and a utility guy when you trade a guy with the character and the ability of Fister,” Dombrowski said. “Really, that starter was really important for us.”
When news of the trade first reached Lombardozzi, he took it hard. A Columbia native, playing for the Nationals allowed him to play in front of his family and friends for two-plus years. He maximized his talent through hard work, the type of fill-in-wherever-needed player that teammates admired.
“It’s hard for people to kind of see or know what they’re getting in terms of me,” said Lombardozzi, who has a career .264 batting average, .297 on-base percentage and .342 slugging percentage. “You look at a guy who is a utility guy, it’s hard to judge a guy by his numbers because he’s not playing every day. But I’m not going to change anything I’ve been doing. I’m here to help this team in any way.”
For Krol — who came to the Nats a year ago as part of the Michael Morse trade — the deal meant his third organization in the span of a year.
“Being traded by the Nationals kinda helped the transition when I had to come here,” he said. “So it was pretty much the same thing, the transition and everything. It’s the same game, just different guys. Everything is normal. Other than that, the staff is new. The guys are new. Everybody gets along well. We have a lot of fun.”
Since Tigers camp started, all three former Nationals have become closer. Ray was sent to minor league camp Wednesday, but he and Krol are frequent golf partners. Krol’s locker is a few feet away from those of Scherzer and Justin Verlander, both Cy Young Award winners. Lombardozzi sits next to another trade acquisition, infielder Ian Kinsler, and near from back-to-back AL MVP Miguel Cabrera.
“It’s been a good transition, an easy transition,” Lombardozzi said. “The guys in the clubhouse have been great. The feel in the clubhouse is definitely a good feel. Everything has been great.”