So, Robbie Ray has an ERA of 0.75. What does that mean?
Well, not much, yet. Ray has only thrown 12 innings this season -- the majority of them against the hapless Houston Astros and the somehow-.500 Minnesota Twins -- so it is essentially impossible to judge him based on his output thus far. The same can be said of Doug Fister. A quality start against a Cincinnati Reds team in injury freefall last night brought his season line to 18.1 IP of 3.93 ERA ball, which is well within expected norms for him, considering he's making his way back from the disabled list. But the fact that the most bizarre, seemingly one-sided trade of the offseason has worked in the Tigers' favor -- even this deep into the season -- bears another look. Dave Dombrowski has built his entire career as a general manager in the trade market, so perhaps it should not be a huge surprise that the deal that sent Fister from the Detroit Tigers to the Washington Nationals in exchange for then-AAA pitcher Robbie Ray and utilityman Steve Lombardozzi (who would later be dealt to the Baltimore Orioles for journeyman shortstop Alex Gonzalez) has yet to blow up in Dombrowski's face.
The Tigers are 27-14 going into Wednesday's games, second only to the Oakland Athletics in winning percentage in the American League, and they're scoring the fifth-most runs per game in baseball while allowing the third-fewest. Here are the players on the team's current 25-man roster that the Tigers drafted: Justin Verlander, Alex Avila, Nick Castellanos, Don Kelly, Drew Smyly, Rick Porcello, Danny Worth, Bryan Holaday. That's it. The ace, both catchers, the starting 3B (for who knows how much longer), the No. 4 and No. 5 starters, and a pair of utility guys. Not to take away from what Smyly and Porcello have done this year -- just about the entire Detroit rotation has pitched out of its mind thus far -- but outside of Verlander, Detroit does not grow its impact talent at home. It acquires it in trade or free agency.
There are very few general managers who consistently excel in the trade market. Andrew Friedman in Tampa Bay is one; it seems like every deal he makes is either completely inconsequential or a clear win for the Rays. But Friedman is generally trading away actual proven assets like James Shields or Matt Garza for prospects. Dave Dombrowski, on the other hand, consistently convinces other major league franchises to deal him top-notch, productive MLB players in exchange for minor leaguers that quickly turn from middling into nothing special whatsoever. If you can pull it off, this is no less a legitimate way to run a front office than the staid, sober rebuilds going on in Chicago or Houston -- but it requires an exceptional amount of guile, and an extremely aggressive minor league system that prioritizes fleeting upside over actual production.
It's hard to argue with Dombrowski's results on the trade market. He turned a couple of middling relievers (Burke Badenhop, Andrew Miller) and a talented CF prospect who can't stay on the field (Cameron Maybin) into Miguel Cabrera in his prime. He turned Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson into Austin Jackson and Max Scherzer. He turned Casper Wells, Charlie Furbush and Chance Ruffin into Doug Fister before he sent him packing. And in what's been a painfully lopsided deal to date, he dealt Jacob Turner to the Marlins and got back Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante. Infante would later leave in free agency, but not after a solid season and a half in Detroit; and Sanchez has been exceptional for the Tigers across parts of three seasons. The only contemporary teams that even approach the sheer value the Tigers have added without surrendering much of note are Walt Jocketty's Reds or the Baltimore Orioles under Andy MacPhail, who added Adam Jones, Chris Tillman, JJ Hardy, Chris Davis, Pedro Strop and Tommy Hunter in the trade market for essentially the cost of Erik Bedard and Koji Uehara.
This makes the Ray/Fister trade even weirder in what limited retrospect we currently have. Even great executives make bad moves, of course: Theo Epstein's career is littered with ill-advised free agency signings, for instance, and Dombrowski himself has occasionally struggled to provide a Detroit team in the middle of its contention window with a contender-quality bullpen. But what looked to be an at-best puzzling, at-worst disastrous winter for the Tigers has turned out to be anything but: The other big Detroit headscratcher of the offseason, the Fielder-Kinsler swap, looks like an extremely shrewd move now that Fielder is struggling with a neck injury he apparently suffered last year and failed to report to anyone, much to the Rangers' chagrin.
Still, while the Tigers aren't exactly missing Doug Fister at the moment -- the combined ERA of all their starters in 2014 (2.70) is more than a run lower than Fister's ERA this season -- that's not necessarily a trend that's likely to continue. The Ray/Fister trade remains a curious choice on Detroit's part. Then again, given how well just about everything else Dave Dombrowski's done on the trade market has worked out so far, it's hard not to give him the benefit of the doubt.