Tigers add lefty to bullpen and versatility to bench in trade that sends Fister to Nats

Infielder/outfielder Steve Lombardozzi comes to the Detroit Tigers in a trade that sent Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals.

Infielder/outfielder Steve Lombardozzi comes to the Detroit Tigers in a trade that sent Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals.

In his first 11 starts for the Detroit Tigers after being acquired in a midseason trade deadline deal in 2011, Doug Fister went 8-1 and pitched like Cy Young. His stellar performance that season helped propel the team to their first AL Central division title. But the presence of two Cy Young Award winners and Anibal Sanchez proved to be more than enough to allow the Tigers to trade Fister on Monday to the Washington Nationals for three players.

Fister’s dominance in those 11 starts back in 2011, when he allowed more than two earned runs only once, will never be forgotten. It will live in Tiger lore. In his 2 1/2 seasons as a member of the Detroit rotation, Fister was well-liked and he did a fine job. But with the Tigers looking to add depth to their bullpen, add something from the left side to their rotation, and in need of a player to fill in at several defensive spots with the loss of Ramon Santiago, this deal makes sense. Mostly, it gets a veteran team much younger.

The Nationals send the Tigers the following three youngsters: lefty reliever Ian Krol (age 22), infielder/outfielder Steve Lombardozzi (24), and minor league southpaw starting pitcher Robbie Ray (age 22). Lombardozzi has three years of big league experience, Krol is coming off his rookie year, and Ray has yet to make his major league debut.

Krol has a fastball in the low 90s but he was inconsistent in his first season in The Show. Like many young pitchers, Krol struggled with his command, but he has a good strikeout pitch and will serve as a left-handed arm out of Brad Ausmus’s bullpen in 2014. He pitched in 32 games for Washington this past season, posting a 3.95 ERA. Over his first 18 appearances, he was very impressive, allowing just three earned runs. Krol joins Phil Coke (resigned to a one-year deal last week) and Drew Smyly in the bullpen from the left-side.

Lombardozzi is the son of a former major leaguer by the same name. He’s played three seasons with the Nats, serving as a good utility player who can play second, third, shortstop, and left field. A switch-hitter, Lombardozzi fits the mold of what Detroit GM likes to have off his bench – a versatile player who can spot up in several positions and swing from both sides of the plate. Though he doesn’t have home run power, he’s an improvement over the departing Santiago, and he could take advantage of the wide gaps in the spacious Comerica Park outfield to turn some singles into doubles. His best defensive position has been second base, but he can also play third, since he has a plus-arm.

With four years of pro ball under his belt, Ray is still developing as a pitcher. A former 12th round draft selection out of Nashville, Tennessee, Ray has a very good fastball. He struck out 160 batters in 142 innings for the Nationals at their high-A and Double-A stops in 2013. Ray’s biggest problem has been his control – he’s allowed four walks per nine innings so far in his minor league career. Yet, Ray is considered a good prospect, and while it’s very unlikely he will make the jump to the Detroit rotation in 2014, he has the potential to give the Tigers a left-handed starter in the near future.

Speaking of that starting rotation, the trade of Fister might signal several moves or non-moves. Having dealt one of his top four starters, does this mean Dombrowski will make efforts to resign Max Scherzer? Fister was arbitartion eligible, and having just completed a healthy season in which he won 14 games, it seems he would have commanded a hefty raise. That’s no longer the Tigers’ problem, and the three players they acquired are cheap pieces. With the money they’ve saved by dumping Prince Fielder’s contract, and letting Joaquin Benoit and Jhonny Peralta go, the Tigs could be amping up to pull the trigger on a big free agent signing. I still think it’s a long shot (I think the Fielder deal was about preserving Miguel Cabrera’s body and ridding themselves of a terrible contract) that Mr. Ilitch will put his name on another $100 million-plus contract.

To further analyze the implications of this trade: What will become of Drew Smyly? Will he be moved back into the rotation to give the Tigers a lefty starter in 2014? As a rookie in 2012, Smyly was solid in 18 starts. What will become of Rick Porcello, who took a step forward in ’13 and has been mentioned in trade rumors for quite some time? Just 25 years old entering the ’14 season, Porcello has three more years before he can be a free agent. It seems he’ll be staying in Motown.

Of course, it’s possible that Trader Dave will further shake up his rotation and pawn Scherzer for a left fielder or third baseman. The Tigers suddenly have many moving pieces and open questions. Will Lombardozzi split time between third and left field, or serve as a utility man, a sort of poor man’s Tony Phillips? Will Ian Kinsler be moved to third base to make room for another second baseman (perhaps a free agent who was rumored to have met with the Tigers two weeks ago, Robbie Cano?). What about Nick Castellanos? What will the Tigers bullpen look like in ’14? Krol, Coke, Al Alburquerque, and Bruce Rondon seem to have claimed a spot in the pen, but who else is coming? Who will close?

Having won three straight division titles, this speculation is much more interesting and fun now, as opposed to say 10 years ago when the team was terrible. That’s what happens when expectations are at an all-time high and a championship is expected – every roster move is scrutinized.

When Dombrowski traded for Fister in July of 2011, most people scratched their heads and asked, “Doug who?” It took only a few months to see that DD had pulled another fast one in favor of the Bengals. I’d be willing to bet that with this deal, he’s probably done something good again.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @twebman or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.