In the summer of 2011, former Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski knew he needed one more starting pitcher to complete a rotation that already included a historically dominant Justin Verlander, an emerging Max Scherzer and a very green Rick Porcello. The fourth spot in the rotation was being held down by Brad Penfrey. No. Mike Pelney. The fifth rotation spot initially belonged to Phil Coke, then rotated among “prospects” who were never going to be as good as we hoped, like Andy Oliver and Jacob Turner.
Even the bullpen was somewhat decent that year with Jose Valverde getting 49 saves, while Al Alburqurque had an ERA under 2.00 and Joaquin Benoit served in a set-up role.
The rotation had to be fortified, the trade market was not flush with top end starters that year, and the costs for what was available was quite steep. Ubaldo Jimenez fetched four prospects — two of whom were highly rated (Drew Pomeranz and Alex White). Ubaldo Jimenez! Dombrowski struck a day early and acquired a lanky right hander from Seattle in Doug Fister, along with David Pauley in exchange for four prospects. Well, three prospects and Casper Wells.
I don't think anyone realized at the time that we were acquiring Doyle Alexander circa 1987, but this time we didn't give up John Smoltz. In his 10 starts as a Tiger in 2011, Doug Fister went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA as the Tigers ran away with the division. Pauley turned out to be useless, but it didn't matter. Doug Fister was THAT good.
After getting bounced by the Texas Rangers in the 2011 ALCS, Dombrowski further fortified the roster and the rotation throughout 2012. Acquiring Anibal Sanchez mid-season, coupled with the emergence of Max Scherzer gave the Tigers probably the best rotation in baseball one through five. Doug Fister was a big part of that, although not nearly as dominant as he had been in 2011. An offseason injury to Victor Martinez also inspired owner Mike Ilitch to sign Prince Fielder to fill the hole in the lineup. However, that 2012 bullpen wasn't as solid, and offense struggled as the Tigers got swept in the World Series by the San Francisco Giants.
2013 was the year. I had become active on Twitter and was wondering how ANYONE could be negative about the team the Tigers were about to field. Max Scherzer had shown signs of the ace he was about to become. Doug Fister was the fourth starter, and he probably would have been the second starter on any other team in the American League. Dombrowski had added Torii Hunter to stabilize the offense. Victor Martinez was back. The rotation was, without question, the best rotation the Tigers had in my entire life. There was no Tom Bolton or Matt Roney here. Drew Smyly become an absolute stud out of the bullpen because there was no room for him to start. Only six pitchers started games: Verlander, Scherzer, Sanchez, Fister and Porcello started 156 games combined, and Jose Alvarez made six spot starts. To put that in perspective, seven guys have started games this season, and the 2015 Tigers used 12 different starting pitchers.
A poorly timed grand slam ruined that season. The payroll had gotten entirely out of control. Sanchez needed an extension coming off an ERA crown. Max Scherzer's contract was coming up shortly too. Something had to give. That rotation was going to need to be broken up to keep the window extended. Dave Dombrowski did what Dave Dombrowski does.
And suddenly we all learned the name Chris Cotillo.
On a boring Tuesday evening, Dec. 2, 2013, Chris Cotillo reported that Doug Fister was being traded to the Washington Nationals. The first name we all heard was Steve Lombardozzi. We assumed he was a throw in to a much bigger haul, then the names Ian Krol and Robbie Ray started popping up. There was some level of encouragement, in large part because of the trust we had in Dombrowski at that point. But there had to be more for Fister, right?
There wasn't. Robbie Ray and a bullpen guy. No Anthony Rendon or Lucas Giolito. We as a collective fan base decided we didn't like Robbie Ray because Robbie Ray wasn't Doug Fister. That's where Dave Dombrowski made a smart, solid baseball trade but forgot to account for public opinion. Maybe Dombrowski didn't realize how much the fan base loved Doug Fister. Maybe he didn't account for the fact that to most fans, Doug Fister was always going to be the guy that we had at the end of 2011 winning 80 percent of his starts. Or the one who struck out 10 straight Kansas City Royals on Sept. 27, 2012, to set an American League record.
None of us realized that the Tigers’ window closed that day.
What happened after the trade of Doug Fister was equal parts bad luck, unexpected decline, and overreactions by the fans and the organization. A massive domino effect took place that has led us to where we are today. The Tigers won $50 on a scratch off and used all $50 and then some trying to win $10,000.
The obvious move was to simply slide Drew Smyly back into a starting role while a 22-year-old Robbie Ray was given an opportunity to develop. Smyly had been solid as a starter at times in the 2012 season, and great out of the bullpen in 2013. Krol would be given Smyly's former bullpen role and the team would be younger and able to afford to keep Anibal Sanchez. Even the maligned Prince Fielder had been shipped off to acquire a huge upgrade at second base in Ian Kinsler. We had claimed J.D. Martinez from Houston and he surprised the world by posting a .912 OPS. Victor Martinez had an MVP quality season for a DH.
For all the good things though, other things began to go wrong — notably Justin Verlander was no longer an ace. In fact, he was pretty bad. Porcello had not developed like we had hoped, and Sanchez took a step back.
To make matters worse, Robbie Ray looked like a 22-year-old pitcher in a couple of spot starts. The dominant rotation of 2013, less than six months later looked like a weakness. Dave Dombrowski knew that he needed another dominant starter to compete so he did, once again, what Dave Dombrowski does best. He went out and got the best pitcher he could. Except he overpaid and did something you rarely saw him do— he gave up a major league asset and created a hole in order to obtain David Price. In dealing Austin Jackson, Drew Smyly and Willie Adames, he had given up more than he realized.
The team won the division with a platoon of Rajai Davis and Ezequiel Carrera manning centerfield but never seriously showed signs of being a World Series contender and was quickly dispatched by the Baltimore Orioles (much to the delight of David Simon) in the ALDS with rookie manager Brad Ausmus. Price was very good but not dominant as a Tiger.
After 2014 is where, in hindsight, things got desperate. Perhaps remembering his last major PR disaster from a decade prior (Damion Easley? You try and trade him!) Dombrowski gave up on Robbie Ray. Dealing him for Shane Greene essentially just a year and three days after acquiring him. At the time, the intention was for Shane Greene to be a starter.
Even worse, he had holes to fill in the outfield now. The team had no center fielder. Previously, Dombrowski had been shrewd in giving up prospects that never panned out (Francisco Martinez, Charlie Furbush, Jacob Turner, Andrew Miller (lol), etc) to get assets. That wasn't going to work forever though.
First of all, Adames is still highly regarded, and Dombrowski gave up Devon Travis to acquire Anthony Gose to play center field. Travis was emerging as a prospect, not declining. Knowing that an outfield featuring Anthony Gose and Rajai Davis was not going to produce enough offensively J.D. Martinez had a great year. But was it going to be sustainable?
Riskier and riskier moves gradually led to the end
In a trade all of baseball saw coming since about 1952, the Tigers dealt Rick Porcello to Boston for Yoenis Cespedes in order to boost the offense, because Torii Hunter was gone, Davis/Gose would never be an offensive dynamo, and J.D. Martinez was still a question mark. The trade of Porcello left a gaping hole in the rotation that was filled by dealing Eugenio Suarez for Alfredo Simon. Another risky move in the game of dominoes that had been falling since Doug Fister was traded.
The organization has been peddling assets in a riskier and riskier fashion to try and plug the holes that resulted from the trade of Doug Fister. A lot of those assets would be the foundation of at least a decent team now, or have allowed you to move other pieces to improve the roster instead of just fill perpetual shortcomings.
Besides Suarez, Adames, and Travis, the name we gave up on that hurts the most is Robbie Ray. Had Robbie Ray still been a Tiger after a 2015 that saw massive improvements in his game, the Tigers likely wouldn't have spent $100 million to fill that hole in the rotation with Jordan Zimmermann. Right now? He's a 25-year-old lefty that's on pace to be worth about seven WAR this year. He would likely be our Ace. How much better would you feel about this teams chances if the payroll were $20 million less, you probably would have been able to keep Cameron Maybin, and your rotation had Ray at the top of it making basically league minimum and not eligible to be a free agent until 2021? Zimmermann is going to make $100 million in the time Ray will likely make around $40 million.
It's happened slowly, one move at a time, but the Tigers have spent the past 31⁄2 years trying to fill the holes created by the trade of Doug Fister and their reaction to it. Never before have I seen a butterfly effect in sports be so obvious and easily traceable.
A good, smart baseball trade destroyed an organization and closed the window on a ball club before any of us even realized it.
Editor’s note: This is a guest column written by SkitchP.