Dave Dombrowski’s deal for David Price is getting good reviews. As a Tigers fan, I have mixed feelings. I think Price boosts our October chances for this year and next, compared to what they were the day before. But since the trade amounts to going “all-in” for those two years, I can’t help reflecting on how we got to this point — namely, these four Dombrowski decisions:

 

  1. Trading Doug Fister for peanuts — widely seen as a money-saver, although Fister makes just over $7 million this year, after averaging 4.7 WAR per 33 starts in two-plus years with Detroit.
  2. Moving Drew Smyly from the bullpen to fill Fister’s spot. As a reliever last year, Smyly’s 2.6 WAR tied for #1 among non-closers, and his 76 IP ranked 14th among pure relievers. He was their one effective lefty last year and their only long reliever, and there was no proven replacement on hand. (No “Coke and a smile” for me, thanks.)
  3. Letting last year’s closer, Joaquin Benoit, walk to San Diego for a guaranteed $15 million over 2 years. Benoit’s 2.8 WAR ranked 6th among relievers last year, as does his 7.2 WAR for 2010-13. Benoit is 36 years old, but then …
  4. Signing Joe Nathan, age 39, for $20 million guaranteed over 2 years.

I thought Dombrowski hit a home run by swapping Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler, but I didn’t like the sum of those other moves. Still, no one could have predicted this year’s utter failure by just about the entire Tigers bullpen. Nathan’s had a great career, and he was even better than Benoit last year. This year’s great results for Fister and Benoit were no sure thing. Smyly had promise as a starter, where a good performance would be even more valuable, and the lefty reliever Ian Krol who came in the Fister deal looked like he could be good.

But again, since all these moves were focused on a World Series goal, I get a bit hung up on these postseason stats:

Player GR W L ERA SV IP H ER HR BB SO WHIP SB CS WPA Tm
Joaquin Benoit 20 Ind. Games 1 0 2.82 3 22.1 17 7 3 5 27 0.99 3 1 0.8 TBR,DET
Joe Nathan 9 Ind. Games 0 2 9.00 1 9.0 14 9 2 8 11 2.44 1 0 -1.0 SFG,MIN,TEX

 

Player ▾ Gms W L ERA GS SV IP H ER HR BB SO WHIP SB CS WPA Tm
Doug Fister 8 Ind. Games 3 2 2.98 7 0 48.1 50 16 2 13 37 1.30 1 0 1.3 DET
David Price 9 Ind. Games 1 4 5.06 4 1 32.0 35 18 6 7 30 1.31 7 2 -0.2 TBR

 

Few reviews that I’ve seen mentioned that Price has lost all four of his postseason starts, with a 5.81 ERA. (The win came in relief, in his debut year.) It’s a small sample, but that rarely stops the pundits from taking notice. One NL executive quoted by Jayson Stark, rating the expected playoff rotations of Oakland and Detroit, noted Justin Verlander’s rough year, but concluded, “I’ll still take the Tigers. He’s got history in October, and Samardzija really doesn’t yet. So I’m going to take the experience.”

Well, fine. But David Price has never really made a good postseason start. His best was 6.2 IP, 3 ER — a game he led 1-0 into the 7th, before yielding a 2-run homer to Mike Napoli. Last year, the Red Sox hammered him for 7 runs and 6 extra-base hits. He’s served 5 HRs in the four starts.

It’s not fair to judge Nathan or Price on such small samples. At the same time, I can’t help thinking that Benoit’s one high-profile failure last fall played a role in the decision to let him go.

Meanwhile, in dumping Fister, Dombrowski parted with one of Detroit’s October heroes. The worst of Fister’s seven postseason starts was 3 runs in 6 innings, and the seven totaled a 2.06 RA/9 in 43.2 IP, and six of the team’s 17 postseason wins in three years. (His one bad game was an emergency long-relief stint that began well and got away late.) Those six team-won starts are tied for #1 with Verlander and Chris Carpenter since 2011. Smyly also did solid postseason work, with a 2.57 ERA in 7 IP while stranding 7 of 8 inherited runners.

Dombrowski’s choices on Fister and Benoit started a chain reaction. The repercussions include acquiring Joakim Soria in exchange for last year’s 1st-round draft pick and their 2012 2nd-rounder (both off to strong pro starts), as well as sending CF Austin Jackson, a steady 4-WAR player in 2010-13 who’s having his worst year to date, along with Smyly and a young infield prospect to land Price. One reason for wanting Price is that every extra inning he provides, compared to Smyly’s starts, is one less nail-biting frame for the shaky bullpen — but that problem essentially began with getting rid of Fister and Benoit.

Detroit probably has the outfield depth to cover losing Jackson, and there don’t seem to be big stretch-run obstacles to another division title. The question is whether the current roster is better fixed to win it all than last year’s bunch. I was never convinced that last year’s ALCS loss reflected any true shortcoming; Detroit out-hit Boston by .254/.659 to .202/.609. Sometimes you get away with a bad pitch in a big spot, and sometimes the other guys turn them into game-changing grand slams. I would as soon have gone to war again with Fister, Benoit and Smyly as with Price, Nathan and Soria.

For me, the trades for Price and Soria come down to Dave Dombrowski trying to fix his own mistakes. And that is worth kudos, because while all GMs make mistakes, some barricade themselves behind those moves. But let’s keep Dombrowski’s “coup” in perspective. If he had held the status quo last winter with Fister, Benoit and Smyly, the Tigers probably would have a bigger division lead right now, and Dombrowski could have spent just a few trade chips for bullpen depth. And the pundits would be praising his patience.

__________

One more point before I go. We tend to overrate players around the trade deadline — partly from grading them against who’s available (as happens with free agency), partly because we prize something we need and lack more than what we have already, and partly just because we like to see things happen.

The buzz for a Price trade has been building ever since the winter. He’s pitched extremely well over the last two months. His 2012 AL Cy Young Award makes a nice story, as he joins forces with the 2011 and ’13 winners. David Price is a very good pitcher — but our expectations should not be based on just the best of what he’s done.

  • Right now, he’s a horse, leading the majors with 171 innings. But for 2012-13 combined, he ranked 25th in total innings, averaging 199. Overall, he’s 7th in IP since 2012.
  • Right now, he leads the majors with 189 strikeouts, and is 7th in K/9. But for 2012-13, he ranked 24th in total strikeouts, 28th in K/9. Overall since 2012, he’s 9th in Ks, 15th in K/9 (400+ IP).
  • With all these strikeouts, Price’s ERA is 3.11 this year, due in part to an AL-high 20 HRs. His 2.93 FIP ranks 17th among this year’s qualifiers, and his 121 ERA+ ranks 30th. Since 2012, he ranks from 6th to 9th in ERA, ERA+, FIP and WAR.

Price is very good, and I’m glad about the trade. But let’s not make him out the equal of Clayton Kershaw, King Felix or Chris Sale. Let’s not put him on a pedestal above Doug Fister, who ranks 16th to 20th in WAR, ERA+ and FIP since 2012. And let’s not predict postseason greatness until he shows us goodness.

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