DETROIT -- The Tigers are no longer a team with six starting pitchers for five spots. They're also no longer the same starting rotation that threw established, formidable arms at opponents from the first spot through the fifth.
What kind of team they are without Doug Fister in their rotation remains to be seen, not just with what they do next year but what they do the rest of this offseason.
For the second time in two weeks, the Tigers pulled off a major trade with an eye on long-term flexibility. On Monday night, they sent Fister to the Nationals for lefty reliever Ian Krol, infielder/outfielder Steve Lombardozzi and lefty starting prospect Robbie Ray.
Prospect acquired by Tigers
Robbie Ray, LHP: The Nationals selected Ray in the 12th round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft and went well above slot to sign him away from his commitment to the University of Arkansas. Ray was more of a command-and-control left-hander in the first two professional seasons, but his fastball velocity ticked up in 2013 and he had the best season of his career. Ray went 11-5 with a 3.36 ERA and led all Nationals Minor Leaguers with 160 strikeouts in 142 innings between Class A Advanced Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg. His fastball now sits around 93 mph and can reach the mid-90s. He mostly pitches off his fastball, while also mixing in a changeup and a slider. To reach his ceiling as a middle-of-the-rotation starter, Ray will need to improve his slider and tighten his command as he continues to progress toward the Major Leagues.
The move opens more room on the Tigers' payroll while adding some badly needed young arms to a system that had been low on young pitching and nearly devoid of lefties. The immediate impact on the Tigers for next year, however, might not be known until they are done dealing this offseason.
"We're not done making moves," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said.
With the two biggest trades of the offseason so far, he's off to a fairly extensive start. With the latest swap, though, he also had to provide some explanation.
It's not a payroll slash, Dombrowski said. It's also not the panacea type of deal that addresses several short-term needs, as some might have hoped when trade talks involving Tigers starters began building a few weeks back. Instead, the return package fills some smaller holes now and a nagging long-term concern later.
If it allows Dombrowski the financial wiggle room to keep the rest of his rotation together for a while, the flexibility will be the biggest piece of this deal. If the Tigers eventually watch Max Scherzer or Rick Porcello leave as free agents in the next year or two, they now believe they're protected with a future starter in Ray.
"We think our starting depth allowed us to make this deal," he said.
While Scherzer was the biggest name mentioned in trade rumors, raising the possibility of a reigning Cy Young winner changing uniforms heading into his contract year, Dombrowski said what many had predicted, that it would have been difficult to try to make a deal work for him.
The Nationals were known to have interest in Scherzer, and they might well have expressed interest in Porcello as well. Fister was the third potential trade piece mentioned.
"Washington asked about some of our other starters," Dombrowski said. "This is the guy at the end that they had focused on."
Fister was one of three Tigers starters who were arbitration eligible with free agency on the horizon. Like Porcello, he was two years away from free agency with a salary that was heading up. He was projected to make $6.9 million in arbitration, according to MLB Trade Rumors.
For the money, however, Fister delivered as a Tiger, going 32-20 with a 3.29 ERA in 68 Tiger starts and two relief appearances. His 8-1 record and 1.79 ERA down the stretch in 2011 reflected his significant role in helping the Tigers to their first of three consecutive American League Central titles. Those numbers leveled out over the next two seasons, but his 14-9 record, 3.67 ERA and 208 2/3 innings pitched this year reflected a workhorse role within a loaded Tigers rotation.
In the postseason, meanwhile, Fister was a cornerstone of the dominant pitching that led Detroit to four postseason series wins over the last three years. His 3-2 record and 2.98 ERA in eight career playoff appearances includes a sub-2 ERA in the AL Championship Series and World Series. He picked up only one playoff win the last two years, but delivered six quality starts in as many outings in that stretch, including six innings of one-run ball with seven strikeouts against the Red Sox.
Fister's 13.3 Wins Above Replacement over the last three seasons rank him ninth among Major League pitchers, though fourth on the Tigers. The four non-Detroit pitchers ahead of him are Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia and David Price.
"He's been a very solid pitcher for us since the day we got him," Dombrowski said. "He's pitched well on a consistent basis. He's pitched well in big games throughout the time period. You're talking about a guy with an ERA of 3.30 over a couple-year period.
"He's done a good job, and he's a quality individual. He's represented us well. This is not an easy deal to make."
It's also not an easy footprint for Drew Smyly to fill. Though the 24-year-old spent this past season as a lefty setup reliever, Dombrowski made a point to mention at season's end that they still see him as a prospective starter. He had a solid first half in the rotation in 2012 before nagging injuries and Anibal Sanchez's arrival left him on the outside of the rotation looking in.
"We talked about being in a position of trying to create room for Drew Smyly in the rotation," Dombrowski said. "We're dealing from depth."
The Tigers entertained the idea of trading Porcello a year ago to open a spot for Smyly. Instead, Porcello will take on the fourth starter role, with Smyly moving behind him.
With Smyly's pre-arbitration salary and Fister's projected salary, the move sheds about $6.4 million from team payroll. The rest of the rotation is expected to remain intact for next year, though Dombrowski didn't guarantee that.
"I'm not making any declarations whatsoever," Dombrowski said. "But I'm also not saying it's a likely scenario either. I'm not making any declarations about any players."
Smyly's relief role, meanwhile, will be filled by Krol, who broke into the big leagues this year as a young lefty setup man. The 22-year-old wasn't a specialist, though left-handed hitters batted .220 (11-for-50) against him with one home run, four walks and 10 strikeouts.
If Krol can stay healthy, one AL talent evaluator said, he has the chance to bolster the back end of Detroit's bullpen.
"Above-average fastball guy that throws in the mid 90s and throws a sharp breaking ball," Dombrowski said. "He's a strikeout type guy coming out of the bullpen."
The 25-year-old Lombardozzi is a switch-hitting, contact-batting role player with decent speed who can play infield and outfield. He batted .259 with 15 doubles, two home runs and 22 RBIs in 118 games for the Nationals in 2013. He'll essentially fill the role Ramon Santiago played with the team for the past several years, though he has very limited history at shortstop.
"We look at him kind of as a super-utility guy," Dombrowski said.
The key arm in the deal, however, is Ray, a hard-throwing lefty starter who ranked as the seventh-best prospect in the Nationals' system from MLB.com's midseason prospect rankings. The 22-year-old went 11-5 with a 3.36 ERA in 27 starts between High Class A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg, allowing 116 hits over 142 innings with 62 walks and 160 strikeouts.
One AL scout projected him as a No. 3 starter down the line, with a low to mid 90s fastballs among his three- to four-pitch arsenal.
"They got legit prospects," the scout said.
Ray isn't expected to compete for a Major League job right away anywhere on the staff, likely needing more seasoning at Double-A this coming year. In a system that has traded away several starting prospects over the past few years, however, he provides a much-needed youth infusion.
"I think it was a key for us," Dombrowski said. "It's not only what you see in the Minors. You see throughout Major League Baseball that young starting pitchers that are on the verge of pitching in the big leagues and being No. 3 or better starters, they're hard to find and they're becoming harder to deal.
"... We felt it was important to get a guy who was knocking on our door to pitch at the big league level. We think this guy's a premium young left-handed pitcher on the verge of pitching in the big leagues, and they're not easy to find."
It's a long-term viewpoint for a team that has been seen in a win-now mode for the past few years. And in explaining the deal, Dombrowski used some of the same wording he chose when he traded Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson for Scherzer, Phil Coke and Austin Jackson four years ago.
That's the last time the Tigers traded highly regarded veteran talent for prospects, and it was seen at the time as a sign that the Tigers were paring back. Between the development of Scherzer and Jackson, plus the signing of Jose Valverde and contract extension for Justin Verlander later that offseason, it became the key trade that extended Detroit's window of contention.
It's going to take awhile to figure out if this deal has near the same effect.
"Anytime you trade the known for the unknown, it's not a popular deal," Dombrowski said, "but it's your responsibility."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.