In Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, the Washington Nationals already had the makings of a terrific starting rotation. They just needed the right piece to complete the ensemble.
It is on this note that we turn to Nats general manager Mike Rizzo and say, "Well played, sir."
Chris Cotillo of MLBDailyDish.com was the first to break the news of Rizzo's latest deal:
The Nationals have since confirmed the trade for Fister, and tweeted out a list of players going the other way to the Detroit Tigers:
That's a light-hitting utility man, a lefty reliever with 32 major-league appearances under his belt and a lefty-throwing prospect whom MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo does not consider one of the organization's top five prospects.
In other words, spare parts for a super-duper-important part that should greatly increase the Nats' chances of doing in 2014 what they were supposed to do last season: win the National League pennant.
Hyperbole? What hyperbole? For the Nats, this move really is that huge.
Thanks mainly to the three guys mentioned right off the bat, starting pitching wasn't exactly a big problem for the Nats in 2013. Per FanGraphs, their starters compiled a 3.60 ERA that ranked seventh in MLB. Going back over the last two years, their starters have a 3.50 ERA that ranks second in MLB behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Nonetheless, the Nationals did have a notable weak link in their starting rotation in 2013. They signed Dan Haren to a one-year deal in hopes that he would be a suitable replacement for Edwin Jackson in the No. 4 slot, and he wasn't.
Despite a strong second-half surge, Haren only mustered a 1.3 fWAR. Jackson, by comparison, mustered a 2.2 fWAR in 2012. Not to mention a 4.03 ERA that was more than half a run better than the 4.67 ERA that Haren compiled in 2013.
It wasn't a total shocker that 2013 was a struggle for Haren. He'd posted a 4.33 ERA in 2012, a season in which he struggled with injuries and dwindling velocity. In swapping Jackson for him, the Nats were losing a solid back-end guy for what was essentially a reclamation project.
That's far from what the Nats are doing in replacing Haren with Fister. If we compare what the two have done over the last two seasons using some key data from FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com, what we get is a table that looks like this:
FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com
In Fister, what the Nats are getting is a guy with more innings pitched, a better ERA, FIP and xFIP, and tons more fWAR and rWAR over the last two years than the guy they recently waved goodbye to.
So yeah, to call this an "upgrade" would be hilariously understating the point. The Nats made about as good an upgrade as they could have possibly made.
To be fair to Haren, Fister would be an upgrade over pretty much anyone. Not just on the Nationals, but any starting pitcher on any team. Over the last three seasons, FanGraphs WAR has the 29-year-old sinkerballer rated as one of the 10 best starting pitchers in MLB.
True story. It reads like this:
Since the start of the 2011 season, Fister has been in the same league as David Price and Cole Hamels. One of those guys has a $100 million contract, and the other has a Cy Young Award.
Fister, of course, just left a rotation featuring two guys with Cy Young Awards. And in 2013, he was the only pitcher in Detroit's starting fivesome who didn't punch out over seven batters per nine innings (yup, even Rick Porcello got in on the action). On a pitching staff with the most strikeouts in MLB history, Fister was an odd fit.
Fister will feel more at home in Washington's starting rotation. His preferred means of dispatching hitters is getting them to hit the ball on the ground—something he's only getting better at, for the record—and he's in a good rotation for that. Over the last two seasons, Nats starters rank in the top 10 in MLB in ground-ball percentage.
Just as important for Fister is that he's going to be joining a much better defensive team than the one he's leaving. Per Baseball Prospectus, the Nationals ranked 11th in defensive efficiency in 2013. The Tigers ranked 27th.
Great pitcher? Check.
Great pitcher going to a better defensive team? Check.
Great pitcher going to a better defensive team in a weaker offensive league? Check.
Those are three pretty big checkmarks, so pardon me for not being surprised by what Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projection system sees for Fister in Washington next season:
Doug Fister ZiPS in Washington: 13-8, 3.19 ERA, 192 IP, 184 H, 13 HR, 36 BB, 144 K, 4.0 WAR, ERA+ 121— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) December 3, 2013
Sounds about right. And if this comes true, the Nats will be getting an ERA from their new "fourth" starter 1.48 runs better than the one they got from their old fourth starter, over 20-odd more innings to boot.
And Fister's value doesn't end with what he can do in the regular season. His time with the Tigers exposed him to three American League Championship Series and one World Series. And in eight playoff appearances (seven of them starts), he compiled a 2.98 ERA.
Goodness knows there are forces that could keep Fister from pitching in the postseason in 2014. As talented as it is on paper, the Nationals offense has been painfully hit-or-miss over the last two seasons. And while the NL East isn't deep, it does have another elite team in it in the Atlanta Braves that could certainly complicate things for the Nats in 2014.
But in 2012, we saw the Nationals put together an MLB-best 98-win campaign thanks largely to elite starting pitching. With Fister joining Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmermann in their rotation, they now have the pieces to do that all over again in 2014.
The National League should consider itself warned.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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