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Henning: Fister trade might yet prove a smart move

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Shane Greene gave up three hits in five innings and struck out six in a 4-3 victory over the Cardinals on Saturday.

Lakeland, Fla. — Notes, thoughts, items a week before the Tigers are re-introduced to the fun and frost of Michigan in April:

Shane Greene, Ian Krol, and Robbie Ray hint at why you can't assess a long-term trade in a single season.

Tigers devotees who spent 2014 simmering over the Doug Fister trade might want to wait ahead of any final verdict. This, in fact, was a recommendation from the day Detroit shipped Fister to the Nationals for what amounted to two left-handed pitchers, Robbie Ray and Ian Krol.

Reason one: Ray was traded to the Diamondbacks in December in a three-way deal that brought Greene to the Tigers. Greene had shown last season with the Yankees he had a bandolier full of nasty pitches. The Tigers during spring camp have seen the same stuff, which was evident again Saturday when he gave up three hits in five innings and struck out six in what ended as a 4-3 victory over the Cardinals.

Reason two: Krol has the team's best left-handed bullpen arm. He pitched an inning Saturday, struck out two, and didn't allow a hit. He probably will make the club and has a chance at age 23 to be a top-shelf reliever.

Reason three: Ray was targeted by the Diamondbacks after their scouts had come around to Detroit's earlier view of a left-handed starter who, like Krol, is only 23. Ray now is throwing a mid-90s fastball, with a strikeout slider, and a change-up that has him on the cusp of cracking Arizona's rotation.

Reason four: Fister is showing signs of descent. He is 31 and scouts have seen a significant drop in velocity during his Grapefruit League starts. You can snort at spring training games, of course, but Fister has allowed 18 hits in 12-2/3 innings.

No one is implying Fister is done. But this was never going to be a trade that in 2014 would make any team but the Nationals look good. Farther down the road, it was a swap that figured to be more in balance, more understandable than it was destined to be at the outset.

Early in 2015, it already is taking on different perspective. And in subsequent months and seasons it should make sense unimaginable to last year's irate Tigers crowd.

Tigers bullpen makes a roulette wheel look predictable.

You think the front office knows which seven relievers will be on that Saturday team charter to Detroit? You think manager Brad Ausmus knows?

They have a fairly good idea. But from front-office boss Dave Dombrowski, to Ausmus and his coaches, the men who will bless Detroit's 25-man Opening Day roster can see a couple of jobs are still in flux. Final personnel probably can't be determined until this week's games and performances settle an unsettled Tigers relief corps.

No longer would it surprise if the Tigers take three left-handers. Kyle Ryan and Ian Krol have pitched well enough to win jobs. Tom Gorzelanny hasn't shown much, but the Tigers like elders who know their way around a late inning. He qualifies. He also can pitch multiple innings.

If the Tigers opt for three lefties, the bullpen has room for four right-handers: Joakim Soria, Al Alburquerque, and two others.

Ausmus hinted Saturday that, for as well as Bruce Rondon has thrown in spring camp, the Tigers might prefer Rondon pitch at least a few more days or weeks at another venue as his 12-month Tommy John surgery recovery continues.

This would make sense. Rondon has not pitched with any regularity since 2013. The Tigers will want health and performance assurances they might feel are lacking even after another week of Grapefruit League shifts.

Joe Nathan's situation remains precarious. But because he has been dealing with a torn thumbnail that hasn't helped his bid to stick as closer, he might have bought time, however brief, as the Tigers perhaps grant him the full benefit of any doubts.

That's one scenario. The other darker script involves releasing Nathan. It seems inevitable that will be the Tigers' call, and soon. It's a matter of how soon.

Joba Chamberlain appears to be in. The Tigers love Chamberlain. His spring ERA might be 6.43, but his manager and bosses seem convinced Chamberlain is an indisputable asset.

Angel Nesbitt deserves to make the team and, it would seem, must make it if the Tigers' back-end gang has a prayer of sealing games. Nesbitt has an arm and owns pitches hitters hate facing. That's reason enough for a 24-year-old with his talent to make the cut, even if he hasn't previously pitched above Double A.

It's possible Ausmus will stick with his original plan and take five right-handers and only two lefties. But if Rondon is reassigned to Florida for a few more days, or if he is shipped to Triple A Toledo for some additional dress-rehearsing, going with five right-handers would mean Nathan probably makes the team even after the Tigers have been confronted with realities naturally associated with a 40-year-old pitcher.

This isn't going to be an easy call, either way. The bullpen is Detroit's biggest issue, its biggest threat, and this week, its biggest puzzle as a front office, Ausmus, and assorted extra voices, assemble that final 25-man squad.