First, the obvious: Trading Doug Fister for three no-names -- and yes, I use that term with all due respect, just being factual about the thing -- looks strange for two related reasons:
1. Doug Fister is both good and cheap,
2. The Tigers couldn't do better than three no-names?
I don't know how to square any of it, really. This morning in his newsletter, Joe Sheehan suggested the move might only be explained as a salary dump; by trading Fister now, the Tigers save roughly $20 million over the next two seasons. I still have no idea why the Tigers couldn't get more from the Nationals (or some other club) than what they got. But it seems to have been a salary dump, plain and simple. The only other explanation is that the Tigers know something important about Fister that we don't, and wanted to get something for him while they still could. But that seems ... unlikely.
Anyway, Grant's already trod this ground in great and amusing detail. In Joe's newsletter, he concluded this:
I think the Doug Fister trade is a prelude to the Tigers signing Shin-Soo Choo.
Yesterday's trade was prelude. We haven't seen the real story yet.
Well, Joe seems to have been right about the second thing, but not the first. It seems the real story was that the Tigers were clearing payroll as a prelude to signing ... a 39-year-old relief pitcher? Well, yeah. It sure does seem that way. And as a friend of the site puts it,
Nathan is going to cost 10 mill. That's Fister $. So...Det swapping out 210 innings of Fister for 65 innings of Nathan.— Brian Kenny (@MrBrianKenny) December 3, 2013
Okay, so it's probably more like 200 to 65. But the point holds. On paper, 200 very good innings are more valuable than 65 excellent innings. And Fister -- again, unless there's something we don't know -- seems like an exceptionally sure thing, as his skills have essentially remained static (and impressive) over the last three seasons. Nathan's skills might be just as stable, but due to the nature of his work, his ERA's aren't stable at all. In 2012, he posted a 2.80 ERA; this year it was half that, in part because he gave up only two home runs all season. Which isn't going to happen again.
Were the Tigers "fooled" by Nathan's 1.39 ERA? Probably not. But there probably was some emotion involved here. That shiny ERA might have made an impression, especially in relation to the Tigers' early-season and postseason bullpen meltdowns. When you come as close to winning as the Tigers have, these last three years, it would be hard not to get emotional. Two years ago, Prince Fielder was going to make a big difference. He didn't. A year ago, the Tigers were going to win with a bunch of no-name reliefers. They didn't. Not quite.
So Fielder's gone, and the bullpen will be anchored by an All-Star who, even at 39, ranks among the game's more reliable closers (which isn't saying much, granted).
I still can't figure out why the Tigers couldn't get more for Doug Fister. One theory that's been floated: Nathan wasn't going to last much longer, so the Tigers had a deadline for trading Fister. Which doesn't make any sense at all. What's the rush? The paychecks don't start getting mailed until April, right? Let's see ... December, January, February, March ... that's four months in which the Tigers might still have traded Fister, or that matter Rick Porcello. It sure seems like a little patience might have netted a serious prospect, or even a solid left fielder.
I don't believe that trading Fister and signing Nathan hurts the Tigers much in 2014. They had six starting pitchers and a questionable bullpen, and now they have five starters and a generally reliable bullpen. But it remains difficult to understand why Dave Dombrowski couldn't do better. Maybe someday we'll know. And maybe it will remain a mystery forever. An exciting baseball mystery.