January 25, 2014 at 7:29 pm

Lynn Henning

Tigers GM sheds some more light on unpopular trade of Doug Fister

Notes, thoughts, items from Saturday as fans crammed into TigerFest on a cold day at Comerica Park:

Dave Dombrowski says the Nationals earlier balked at trading Robbie Ray to the Tigers in a deal for Doug Fister.

This might have been the most savory news that sprang from Saturday’s annual winter baseball bash.

Dombrowski all but turned his fan base into a torch-and-pitchforks mob in November when the Tigers front-office boss dealt Fister to the Nationals for a couple of young left-handed pitchers and a reserve named Steve Lombardozzi.

It was known Tigers scouts raved about Ray, the left-handed starter who had been working his way up the Nationals chain and who was the trade’s billboard prospect. The Tigers, in fact, had him on a list of 15 pitching prodigies they intended to make part of any offseason deal involving a Tigers starter.

It is known also the Tigers expect Ray, 22, to be more of a top-of-the-rotation starter when he settles for regular shifts at Comerica Park, which is more likely to happen in 2015.

Dombrowski might have mentioned when the trade was announced that Washington had two weeks earlier said no to parting with Ray. It would have softened some of the artillery rounds fired by fans irked that Fister was leaving in a deal for three no-names.

The Nationals weren’t posturing. They knew the Tigers were shopping Fister and that a pitcher they wanted badly could easily have landed elsewhere. Two weeks later, they said yes to Ray and a deal that has been more popular in the Tigers front office than it has been among Comerica’s customers was sealed.

Dombrowski had a wry line when asked Saturday why he kept the trade chronology quiet. He said he “wanted to get beat up a bit” before he spilled the beans.

He took his lumps, all right. He’s still taking them. Not until Ian Krol, the left-handed reliever Detroit also grabbed in the Fister swap, begins throwing from the bullpen in the fashion Dombrowski imagines, and not until Ray arrives as a steady starter, will fans cease steaming about November’s exchange.

Fans like names. Fister had one. The other guys don’t. It’s going to be a while before Dombrowski’s audience forgives him for this one. He knows it.

And just to prove how much he regrets the parcel Detroit got from the Nationals, tomorrow he would make the very same deal.

Drew Smyly will need to be watched in 2014 as his bullpen-to-rotation conversion plays out.

Dombrowski had little to say about this Saturday. But the Tigers understand Smyly can’t be abused when he pitched only 76 innings as a reliever in 2013.

He is 24 and could become one of the better left-handed starters in the league. That is, if Smyly stays healthy.

It would seem reasonable the Tigers will push him somewhere into the 140-inning range, maybe 150, this season, although, again, Dombrowski refused to even breathe a number when pressed Saturday.

It should help that the Tigers only will need a fifth starter once, at the most, during the regular season’s first two weeks. Thereafter, he will be asked to pitch five innings, minimally, with a pitch-count that in the early weeks and months probably won’t exceed 85.

Smyly will need to get his prized left arm “stretched out,” as they say. And until he is able to hit that 100-pitch plateau — it’s difficult to know when he will be cleared for 100 or more — it would behoove the Tigers to have a rested bullpen on the days Smyly works.

Luke Putkonen could be of immense service there, assuming he pitches well enough in Florida to secure a long-relief slot that by default he today pretty much owns.

This is going to be tricky. Smyly is a gem of a pitcher. But he must stay healthy. And that means his workload cannot match in 2014 what his rotation partners contribute.



Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez and fan Courtney Heitmeyer, of Mt. Pleasant, ham it up for a picture Saturday during TigerFest at Comerica Park. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News
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