Of the many problems the Detroit Tigers have been struggling with early in 2012, the starting pitching has not been one of them, at least since the first 10 days of the season. The rotation has been solid to spectacular, and with Doug Fister back on the hill after an injury to his rib cage sidelined him for a month, it’s even better.
Fister continues to pitch very well since coming to Detroit at the trade deadline last season. The right-hander had been a decent pitcher with the Seattle Mariners, but when he was dealt to the Tigers in July last year it’s as if he stepped into a phone booth and put on his superhero tights. It’s early yet – Fister has made just 13 starts for the Bengals – but given his phenomenal success (8-2, 1.55 ERA, 71 K’s and only eight walks in 87 innings), the Fister trade has the potential to rank among the best in Detroit Tigers history. GM Dave Dombrowski sent outfielder Casper Wells, pitchers Charlie Furbush and Chance Ruffin, and minor league third baseman Francisco Martinez to the M’s for Fister and reliever Dave Pauley. Pauley’s been sent packing already, and we will have to wait a few years to see how Martinez, Ruffin (toiling at Triple-A for the Mariners), and Furbush pan out. Wells appears that he’ll probably never be much more than a good 4th outfielder in the big leagues, though a serviceable one.
You don’t have to go back too far for examples of some of the best trades in Tigers history. In the 2007 off-season, Dombrowski pulled the trigger on a blockbuster deal – his magnum opus so far – acquiring Miguel Cabrera from the Florida Marlins for several young prospects. Chief among those young players was pitcher Andrew Miller and outfielder Cameron Maybin. After nearly five years, it’s become obvious that neither Miller of Maybin will make the Tigers regret the trade. Meanwhile, Cabrera has won a home run crown, RBI crown, and batting title in a Detroit uniform. Since he just turned 29 last month, Cabrera will be a big part of the Tigers lineup for many more years. If he keeps his current pace, there’s a plaque in Cooperstown waiting for him.
Working back chronologically, there were two trades which heavily favored the Tigers and helped build the World Championship team of 1984. In November of 1981, the Tigers nabbed Chet Lemon from the Chicago White Sox in a one-for-one deal for Steve Kemp. On the surface, Kemp was the better offensive player, but the numbers were a little misleading. Lemon played in cavernous old Comiskey Park and a lot of his doubles there would turn into homers at Tiger Stadium. Most importantly, Lemon was the best defensive center fielder in the American League (well, Dwayne Murphy was good too, but they were both excellent). “Chet the Jet” turned spacious center field in Tiger Stadium into the place where triples went to die. In ’84 he has his best season with the bat for Detroit, with 20 homers and 76 RBI from the bottom section of the order. Kemp had one decent season with the Sox and then bolted for the Yankees as a free agent. He hit 22 homers after that.
The other deal that shaped the ’84 team is famous. On the eve of the regular season, the Tigers sent two popular players: John Wockenfuss and young outfielder Glenn Wilson, to the Philadelphia Phillies for reliever Willie Hernandez and utility man Dave Bergman. The back story of the deal is rarely discussed, and it’s interesting. Sparky Anderson and GM Jim Campbell knew they had a very talented team and they expected to contend for the division title, but they were unhappy with the bullpen in spring training. Veteran Aurelio Lopez struggled and also had a bout of gout. Doug Bair, a 34-year old right-hander had been acquired as a free agent in the off-season. But after that there were a lot of question marks. Not only did they need more depth, they wanted a lefty. The Tiger braintrust recognized that this area was the team’s one glaring hole. Hernandez was the key to the deal for the Tigers, and Wilson was coveted by the Phillies. The Phils also liked Wockenfuss’s versatility, and Bergman was thrown in to balance the deal. Hernandez had never been “the guy” out of the pen: in Philly he’d served behind closer Al Holland, and earlier with the Cubs he was apprentice to Bruce Sutter. But, like Fister, Hernandez turned into Superman in a Tigers uniform. He pitched almost every other game, was perfect in save situations, and won the Cy Young and MVP. It’s important to note that bullpens were used quite differently then, and Sparky called on Hernandez when he was needed in tight spots, regardless of the inning. In his 80 games, Willie entered in the 7th inning 14 times, 8th inning 37 times, and even came in and finished two games from the sixth inning. In 38% of his appearances he came in with runners on base. Back then the top relievers were called firemen, and Hernandez truly came in to put out fires.
That trade had a huge impact on a pennant race, but this next trade did not. By the conclusion of the 1970 season, the Tigers were fed up with Denny McLain. Only a year removed from winning his second consecutive Cy Young Award, McLain imploded in 1970, both on and off the field. Dealing with his problem child as quickly as possible, Campbell traded McLain to the Washington Senators just a week after the end of the season in an eight-player trade. McLain was the big name in the deal, and at just 26 years of age he was still in his prime. The Senators hoped a change of scenery would help him regain his form. Detorit sent Denny, veteran third baseman Don Wert, and youngsters Elliott Maddox and Norm McRae to the Senators. In return they got pitchers Joe Coleman and Jim Hannan, and infielders Eddie Brinkman and Aurelio Rodriguez. Needless to say that McLain never did anything to help the Senators, and was out of baseball in a few years amid scandal. Coleman was a workhorse in the Detroit rotation for 5+ seasons, winning 20 games twice. He was a key part of the ’72 division championship team. Brinkman (shortstop) and Rodriguez (third base) solidified the left side of the Detroit infield for several seasons, as two of the best fielders at their position.
As good as that trade turned out for the Tigers, it still pales in comparison to the granddaddy of all Detroit trades. In 1960 as the Cleveland Indians prepared to travel north for the start of the season, their GM, a man named Frank Lane, made a call to his counterpart with Detroit, Rick Ferrell. “I’ll give you cash for Demeter,” Lane said. Ferrell was surprised and didn’t know if Lane meant cash money or Norm Cash, the young first baseman. When he figured it out, he made the deal and one of the greatest characters to ever play in Detroit was a Tiger. But as likable as Cash was, he was also a fantastic ballplayer. He spent 15 seasons as the Tigers first baseman, hitting 373 homers for the team. In 1961 he hit 41 homers, led the AL in hits, batting, on-base percentage, and OPS, and drove in 132 runs. In the magical ’68 season, the left-handed hitting Texan hit 25 homers and then hit one more and batted .385 in Detroit’s World Series victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. Demeter? He went to the plate five times for the Indians and never played in the majors again. The Cash-for-Demeter deal has to be the best in Detroit history, thus far.
For the Fister deal to top that, the right-hander will have to put up some very good numbers for a long time, while also helping the club deep into the post-season at least once. But already, given the lopsidedness of the deal this far, the trade is one of the better deals in franchise annals.