Lakeland, Fla. — They might as well have been dressed in black when they showed up at Tigertown for the beginning of spring drills.
Robbie Ray and Ian Krol are the two villains — make that left-handed pitchers — whom Dave Dombrowski most wanted three months ago when the Tigers president and general manager infuriated much of his fan base by trading talented right-hander Doug Fister to the Nationals.
Steve Lombardozzi, a bench player, also came to the Tigers as part of Washington’s price for landing Fister. But it was Ray and Krol, each 22, and each projected to be high-upside lefties, who impressed the scouts and managers whose reports Dombrowski followed in making a wildly unpopular swap.
“I liked Robbie's repeatable delivery and the life to his fastball,” said one longtime East scout. “Krol’s a high-velocity guy converting from starter to bullpen.
“Both are young guys with upside who at some point will be major-league ready — in different roles. But both are major-league pitchers.”
The scout requested anonymity due to the often confidential nature of his work.
Krol is expected to arrive earliest at Comerica Park, with a strong expectation he will break camp with the team next month. Krol last season pitched in 32 games for the Nationals, with a 3.95 ERA in 27 1⁄3 innings (28 hits, 22 strikeouts, and eight walks).
A seventh-round pick by the A’s in 2009, Krol was the hard-throwing lefty a bullpen lacked after Phil Coke’s inconsistency became an issue in 2013.
His fastball runs 91-96 mph and most often sits at 93. It is his trademark pitch, his strikeout pitch, and is backed up more often by either of two change-ups he throws: a two-seam flutterball that tends to dive and sink, and a harder four-seam change-up that has less action but gives hitters a different look.
Krol was brought aboard to give the Tigers bullpen a boost as early as Opening Day. Ray’s timetable is more prolonged, although Dombrowski has hinted Ray could at least spot-start in 2014.
Ray was a 12th-round pick by the Nationals in 2010 out of Brentwood (Tenn.) High School. He was 11-5 with a 3.36 ERA spanning stops at two Nationals farm teams in 2013. It was his work at Double A Harrisburg, highlighted by a July 11 win over the Tigers’ Erie club, that helped send him to Detroit.
Ray that night allowed three hits, struck out 11, and walked two in a nine-inning, 7-0 shutout of the SeaWolves.
“I saw him about as good as you could see a player,” said Chris Cron, then Erie’s manager, and now the Diamondbacks’ roving minor-league batting instructor. “When asked, you give your opinion, and my opinion was he had about as good an outing as any pitcher who threw against us.
“The kid dominated. He pounded the strike zone, commanded pitches, and made our team look overmatched.
“You never necessarily grade on the minor-league side of things,” Cron said. “You always look at it from a big-league side when you’re making that evaluation or recommendation. And when you look at the command of his fastball, in and out within the strike zone — he was doing it all.
“He mixed in a little change-up that was also good and very efficient, and he wasn’t afraid to come right at you. Just a very impressive outing. When you throw nine innings, give up three hits, and strike out 11, the report from my end was pretty simple.”
Ray’s prize pitch, as is always the case with a Dombrowski acquisition, is a four-seam fastball that in Ray’s case tends to be more of a sinker. It cruises 91-94 mph and on a couple of occasions in 2013 climbed as high as 97.
Because it tends to ride low in the strike zone, Ray dispenses with a two-seam fastball. Neither are the Tigers in love at the moment with his breaking pitch, a hard-charging curveball that behaves more like a slider and a pitch that will be his primary project at Triple A Toledo, which is where Ray is expected to begin the 2014 season.
His off-speed option is a two-seam change-up. It behaves more like a dipping split-finger change-up and is thrown between Ray’s ring and middle fingers, as opposed to an index-middle finger slot.
Such is the brand of detail teams absorb when they are investing in pitchers as critical to the Tigers’ future, and to Dombrowski’s gamble, as Ray and Krol. A good pitcher was shipped to Washington as part of a trade the Tigers’ front-office chief knew would be panned by Comerica Park’s customers.
At least, that’s been the early feedback. By the time they’ve grown into their roles, Dombrowski expects a different response, accompanied by applause.