Thursday, May 8, 2014
Dombrowski's offseason moves look good
By David Schoenfield
Detroit Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski, coming off a season in which his club won 93 games and reached the ALCS, made two controversial offseason trades.
In November, he traded first baseman Prince Fielder and cash to the Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler.
Two weeks later, he traded starting pitcher Doug Fister to the Nationals for minor league pitcher Robbie Ray, reliever Ian Krol and utility infielder Steve Lombardozzi.
The first trade was met with generally positive reviews for both teams, as clearing Fielder's contract -- he's signed through 2020 at $24 million per season (the Tigers will pay $6 million per year of that from 2016 through 2020) -- was viewed as a way to clear some room for the Tigers to potentially sign impending free agent Max Scherzer. Plus, Kinsler would add needed speed and athleticism and allow Miguel Cabrera to move back to first base, improving the team's defense. As for the Rangers, they needed a lefty power bat in a lineup that skewed right-handed.
Still, there were concerns that the Tigers would miss Fielder's bat behind Cabrera, even though Fielder was coming off the worst OPS (.819) and lowest homer output (25) of his career.
The second trade was almost universally criticized. Fister is a sabermetric darling, a guy who ranked ninth in FanGraphs WAR from 2011 to 2013, behind much bigger names (including three of his teammates, Justin Verlander, Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez).
Ray, the centerpiece of the deal, wasn't seen as a prospect worthy of Fister. While Ray had a breakthrough year in the minors, striking out 160 in 142 innings between Class A and Double-A, he wasn't a top-100 guy on the various best-in-the-minors lists. The message was that the Tigers should have done much better for a valuable pitcher like Fister. Maybe Fister was Detroit's fourth-best starter, but he would be the No. 1 or No. 2 on many other teams.
How are those trades looking? Pretty good from Detroit's perspective. The Tigers (20-9) have the best winning percentage in the majors and are enjoying an eight-game winning streak that has given them a five-game lead in the AL Central. There were concerns that Kinsler would struggle away from Texas, where he always had a large home-field advantage, but he's hitting .309 AVG/.346 OBP/.423 SLG.
Fielder, meanwhile, is showing no signs that 2013 was just a down year. He's hitting .226/.347/.331 and while his eye at the plate seems as good as ever (although nine of his 21 walks have been intentional), he's hit just two home runs. His struggles against fastballs continue, meaning the speculation that his bat speed is declining still holds. He's hitting .286 against fastballs, which sounds good, but the best hitters feast off fastballs. He hit .272 against fastballs last year. In 2012, Fielder hit .348 and slugged .542 against fastballs; in 2011, he hit .323 and slugged .607. In 2009, when he hit 46 home runs, he hit .332 and slugged .620 against fastballs.
It's too early to draw conclusions on Fielder, but he's not providing the big power the Rangers expected. With his poor defense and baserunning, his WAR is a below-replacement-level minus-0.5. Ouch. And that's without getting into the $114 million the Rangers will owe him after this season.
As for Ray, he's pitched well in Triple-A and looked impressive Tuesday in his major league debut in a spot start for Sanchez. Granted, it was against the Astros, but he pitched with poise and confidence, showing command of his low-90s fastball and a good changeup. Buster Olney compared his mechanics to former Red Sox lefty Bruce Hurst. Fister hasn't pitched yet due to elbow inflammation.
Again, it's way too early to analyze this deal, but it certainly could be that Dombrowski and the Tigers simply evaluated Ray much higher -- and more accurately -- than everyone else. In the end, that's all that matters. We don't know what other deals Dombrowski could have gotten for Fister; the GM obviously was happy with the one he got.
General managers of teams with big payrolls never receive as much credit as Billy Beane in Oakland or Andrew Friedman in Tampa, and that's understandable, but Dombrowski's trade record is impressive. Consider some of his big deals:
• He acquired Sanchez and Omar Infante from the Marlins for the 2012 stretch. Jacob Turner, the big prospect in that trade, has yet to do much for the Marlins. (And the Tigers were able to re-sign Sanchez after the season).
• He acquired Fister from Seattle in 2011 in an absolute steal, with only reliever Charlie Furbush providing marginal value to the Mariners.
• Scherzer was a talented but erratic right-hander with Arizona, and Austin Jackson a toolsy prospect with the Yankees, when they came over in a three-team trade. The Tigers gave up Curtis Granderson, who was certainly very good with the Yankees, and Edwin Jackson, whom the D-backs quickly traded away. None of the three teams got burned, but Scherzer and Jackson have helped the Tigers to three straight playoff appearances.
• Of course, back before the 2008 season , he acquired Miguel Cabrera (and Dontrelle Willis, who was a flop) for Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin (plus others), two of the top 10 to 15 prospects in baseball at the time. Obviously, a huge win for the Tigers as Miller and Maybin never developed in Florida.
In an era when prospects are more prized than ever, Dombrowski has almost taken the opposite approach, using them instead as trade leverage. But he's also made the proper evaluations: keeping Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly instead of Turner; trading away Francisco Martinez in the Fister trade while keeping Nick Castellanos; trading away Maybin and acquiring Jackson. The first key to a successful GM is properly evaluating your own talent. We'll see if Ray is the next guy Dombrowski was right about.
Most of Dombrowski's free-agent signings have also panned out -- guys like Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta and Torii Hunter have provided excellent bang for the buck. The Fielder contract was questionable, but now the Tigers are out from under most of that.
Dombrowski isn't perfect; the Tigers' lack of depth has been an issue even as they've made the playoffs in recent years. The Tigers started Quentin Berry in the World Series two years ago, after all, and counted on Delmon Young. Dombrowski's bullpens have certainly been inconsistent.
But when it comes to trading, I'm not sure I want to be the GM on the other end of the line when Dombrowski calls.