Loss of Scherzer further weakens Tigers’ starting rotation

Max Scherzer was 82-35 with 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings in his five seasons with the Detroit Tigers.

Max Scherzer was 82-35 with 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings in his five seasons with the Detroit Tigers.

The departure of Max Scherzer completes a process that, over the course of two winters, has downgraded the Detroit Tigers’ starting rotation. At the close of the 2013 season, Detroit had Justin Verlander, Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Doug Fister, and Rick Porcello, with Drew Smyly poised to join the rotation if needed. As the team enters this season, the rotation consists of Verlander, Sanchez, David Price, Alfredo Simon, and Shane Greene.

The shuffling of the starter deck began when “Trader Dave” Dombrowski, to the puzzlement of everyone, suddenly dealt Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals. Commentators uniformly rated the swap a giveaway for Detroit—and they were proven correct. For Fister (4.5 WAR last year), Detroit got Ian Krol (-0.6 WAR), and Robbie Ray (0.1 WAR, and since dealt away with prospect Domingo Leyba to get Shane Greene), and Steve Lombardozzi, who was then flipped to obtain Alex Gonzalez and his -0.6 WAR. In all, the Tigers lost 5.6 WAR in that deal.

The deal did give Smyly a chance to emerge from the bullpen and join the starting rotation—but in mid-season he was shipped to Tampa Bay for another pitcher on the eve of his walk year, Price. The Tigers also gave up Austin Jackson and minor leaguer Willy Adames in the deal.

This winter, Dombrowski dealt Eugenio Suarez and Jonathon Crawford for Simon and sent Porcello to the Boston Red Sox for Yoenis Cespedes. Those two trades finished the quartet of swaps that radically changed the starting rotation—and now Scherzer has signed with Washington after Dombrowski expressed publicly his satisfaction with his new rotation.

In sum, while Detroit and Scherzer reached an impasse and then parted ways, every other starter but Verlander and Sanchez hit the road too. Collectively, in the four trades that revamped the rotation, Fister, Smyly, and Porcello were swapped for Price, Simon, and Green. In the process Detroit also lost Austin Jackson, Suarez, and three minor leaguers (Leyba, Adames, and Crawford) and got Yoenis Cespedes.

Leaving aside the potential unknown future value of the three minor leaguers, Jackson and Suarez are gone and Cespedes and Krol are in Detroit. Whether that’s a net plus for the club is debatable. The outfield defense is now weaker than when Jackson patrolled spacious Comerica. Perhaps Cespedes’ offensive punch will transcend that problem and Krol will blossom in the pen.

But regardless of all that, focus on the exchange of starting pitchers. Fister is thirty and last year had a 4.5 WAR; Smyly, twenty-five, piled up 2.4 WAR with the Tigers and Rays, and Porcello, twenty-six, was worth 4.0 wins above replacement. Price, twenty-eight, notched a 4.6 WAR; Greene, twenty-six, was worth 0.6 WAR for the Yankees in a partial season; Simon, thirty-three, had 1.9 WAR.

Fister, Smyly, and Porcello totaled 10.9 WAR last season; Price, Greene, and Simon totaled 7.1. That’s a loss of almost four wins for Detroit. (I apologize to those who don’t like WAR, but it makes comparisons easier; if you want to use other stats, go ahead, but I think you’ll end up agreeing that collectively the three who left were better than the three we now have.)

In addition, most observers expect Simon, a career relief pitcher, is not going to have another year like he did as a starter in 2014. Chances are good he’ll regress. Greene has an upside of some sort, but most Smyly’s is bigger. The other three have all proven their worth—Porcello, Fister, and Price will no doubt, barring injury, be what they’ve been: very good.

The trio we lost had a collective age of eighty-one years, or an average age of twenty-seven; the three we got has a collective age of eighty-seven, an average of twenty-nine. So the Tigers’ starting rotation not only got worse, it got older.

Mike Ilitch did save some money in the bargain, but not much. Porcello signed at $12.5 million for one year, Fister for $11.4 million, and Smyly got $2.65 million in arbitration. The total cost for the trio for one year of team control in 2015 is $26.5 million.

The Tigers recently signed Price for one year for a record $19.5 million to avoid arbitration. Simon will be paid $1.55 million this year, and Greene will make a half-mil, the major league minimum. The total cost for the trio will be around $21.5 million, and Simon and Price will have to be re-signed to stay beyond this year.

In all, Ilitch saved about $5 million, and we get to keep Greene beyond this season and see how he develops.

Scherzer has signed for $210 million for seven years after turning down Detroit’s offer of $144 million for six years last winter. Instead of the $24 million a year Detroit was offering him, Mad Max signed for $30 million a year and an extra year. Under the arrangements of the deal, the Nats will pay Scherzer $15 million per year for 14 years.

Was the difference that substantial for an owner who is desperate to win the World Series? If the Tigers had met Scherzer’s asking price, they could have used Simon to shore up their bullpen substantially. Instead, the net loss from the six starters we had at the end of 2013 to the rotation for this season looks huge.

Dombrowski has made great moves putting the Tigers together. He made one of the steals of all time getting Miguel Cabrera (and Dontrelle Willis) for Cameron Maybin, Bruce Badenhop, two other guys who never amounted to anything, and Andrew Miller, who only last year blossomed as an ace reliever. He nabbed Victor Martinez as a free agent. Late in 2013 he stole Jose Iglesias from Boston. Last year he wisely swapped Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler. The Tigers found JD Martinez hiding under a rock in Houston.

Credit Dombrowski with all this magic. But since he pulled off his fantastic theft of Scherzer from Arizona, his mojo has faded when trading pitchers.

Hey, maybe Trader Dave can get Fister back from the Nationals now that they have Scherzer?