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Quick reaction: Tigers erred in Nate Robertson trade

There is nothing quite like an ill-timed, rushed trade of a bad contract to get my attention during what is easily the worst baseball-related time of the year for me: spring training.

My quick thoughts on the deal are this:

● I understand the hatred of Nate Robertson. I know it feels like he gives up just the one run we can’t afford to give up in a 3-2 loss. Plus, he’s got a huge contract relative to his talents. Unfortunately, I think the truth is in the middle: he’s not as bad as people want to make him out to be. He’s certainly been light years ahead of Dontrelle Willis since we acquired him in the Miguel Cabrera deal. Arguing that is pointless because it’s 100% fact.

● Willis hasn’t pitched well this spring at all. Include his game today, the 3 strikeouts, 4 walks put him now at 13 Ks, 12 BBs and 2 HBPs this spring. This is our 5th starter? While Robertson was at 19 Ks, 7 BBs in 20 innings. I get that if he’s ineffective Detroit can stash him on the DL and collect insurance -- actual dollar amounts unknown. But is the value of getting insurance on a terrible contract enough to off set dumping someone who almost assuredly would be a better pitcher in 2010 for the Tigers – who mind you, have shown they intend to contend this year with the acquisition of Johnny Damon and Jose Valverde – because I don’t think it is.

● By shipping $9.6 million – I will repeat NINE POINT SIX MILLION DOLLARS – to the Marlins so they can have Robertson virtually for free, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski is saying that he believe Willis is the safer bet to be the better starting pitcher in 2010. This is, frankly, ludicrous.

● This brings up issues that I’ve had with Dombrowski all along: poor financial management and talent evaluation. I assume Willis’ contract has more to do with why he’s staying over Robertson, but would have have happened if he didn’t have a shiny ERA? Doubtful. This, coupled with the other examples of Dombrowski seeming to rely heavily solely on ERA, is cause enough for me to seriously question how he works. I’m not saying he’s got to run linear regressions on pitchers by hand every other hour, but I feel he’s too wrapped up in metrics that are judging pitchers poorly.

As for the money management, his poor contracts have now pushed out a better player than (1) the one we got back and (2) the one that we kept.

Betting that Willis will be even good enough to stick in the rotation is a poor bet. Every single team has problems at the No. 5 starter (Matthew Carruth had a good piece on Fangraphs a couple weeks ago about how teams secure their top 4 rotation spots and give the remaining starts in the No. 5 spot to a hodge-podge of pitchers), so keeping someone like Robertson around was imperative because, like the other 30 clubs, the Tigers would need him to be a starter since they clearly don’t value Zach Miner as a SP.

Secondly, what has Willis done besides sign his name on a piece of paper to even instill the slightest ounce of confidence in the front office and coaching staff that he can make even 10 starts this year, let alone 20+?


This is a trade that on the surface makes sense – we dealt our most attractive bad contract (even though the Tigers are paying the majority of it) for an A-ball reliever. But, the underlying issues continue to be the main problem of this Front Office’s tenure. Eddie Bonine is not a big league pitcher. He’s a worse pitcher than Robertson. If Bonine and Willis even combine to make 12 starts for this team in 2010 I’ll be shocked and scared about what that means for the state of our club this year.

Now for a look at what we're getting back:

Jay Voss, the big left-hander we got back in the trade failed as a starter in 2008 in the Marlins system at Low-A Greensboro. Since moving into the bullpen during that year, Voss posted some decent numbers. In the pen in 2008 he put up a 25.2% K rate, 8.7% BB rate. Unfortunately I have to estimate his ERA as a reliever as all sites I check have his total line for 2008 at Greensboro, and I get around 4.68. His tRAr, which is a regressed version of a runs allowed simulator that is a better predictor of future success, had him at 4.54 -- which was below average for the level.

In 2009, he started at High-A Jupiter and posted solid numbers in just a limited sample of 14 innings. He struck out 17.2% of the batters he faced while walking 5.2%. When he moved to Double-A Jacksonville, he upped his K% to 24.5%, but his walk rate spiked as well to 10.2%. That's the highest it's been since moving into the bullpen, but it is something worth watching. Guys who walk 10% of the batters they face, even if they're in the bullpen, don't last long in the MLB.

Also on his StatCorner page, it gives a nice list of splits. He had a very high swinging-strike % in Double-A last year, which could've led to such a high strikeout rate. One thing that appears to be a plus in his favor is his above-average ground ball tendencies. Calculating his GB% since moving into the bullpen, I get 54% of the balls in play against him are grounders. So even if his strikeout rate dips (which my first reaction is that it will) in 2010 at whatever minor league level we put him (probably Double-A Erie?), he should get enough grounders to compensate for it.

Mark of tweeted this about the repertoire of Voss:

#Tigers new reliever, Jay Voss, sits 90-92, gets up to 93, decent breaking ball and command of both pitches, some potential as BP lefty.

Sounds promising enough, I suppose. I guess it's probably a fair return on the deal, even though we're paying 96% of Robertson's contract.

Still, my biggest contention about this trade isn't the actual trade itself, it's the process that took place.

  1. This deal didn't have to be made today, there was no rush.
  2. This is a crazy way to save $400K when we could've saved that much had we released him and someone signed him for the league minimum (which I think would have happened)
  3. Dontrelle continues to get a pass because he costs $2 million more.
  4. Additionally, I doubt Willis "wins" the fifth starting spot if his shiny spring ERA were more indicative of how he's pitched. And that is my biggest beef: the process of the front office at this time.