The Washington Nationals had as miserable an 86-win season as the Wild Card Era has seen in 2013. In the run-up to the season, they drew comparisons to the 1990s Braves, the 1986 Mets and—strangely, cruelly, unfairly—the Big Red Machine. Roughly 80 percent of the respected punditry predicted that Washington would win the NL East. Over half of those prognosticators had the Nationals in the World Series. Winning 86 games, and getting there only thanks to a strong finishing kick, represented a massive letdown.

Enter Doug Fister, for whom Washington traded three players to the Detroit Tigers.

Nationals GM Mike Rizzo got very proactive about replacing Dan Haren on Monday. Haren signed a one-year, $10-million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers earlier this offseason, leaving Washington with at least one empty slot in its rotation. Fister fills that hole, and that’s not the only way in which he assumes a mantle that once belonged to Haren. He’s a well-loved pitcher in the sabermetric community whom, for reasons both legitimate and questionable, teams view far less favorably than outside analysts. Three years ago, Haren was in that spot, after being traded for a third time.

Unlike Haren, Fister has mostly normal mechanics, and unlike Haren, he induces many ground balls. Like Haren, though, Fister lacks the velocity that most good pitchers possess, and that has come to be the first litmus test most talent evaluators perform, on prospects and on big-league pitchers alike.

I don’t want to suggest that it’s that simple, that teams undervalue those pitchers because they don’t throw hard enough. While that’s not the whole truth, though, it is true. It’s also true that Fister is a gigantic person, six-foot-eight, and that Haren has always had a bizarre delivery that lacked momentum and made his durability a surprise, frankly. Those physical factors, it seems to me, are also baked into teams’ evaluations of each player. That may not be popular in some corners, but it’s not unfair. Haren’s strange mechanics led to hip and back issues that hampered him in 2012 and 2013. Fister’s height puts him at an elevated risk for a number of injuries. The lack of heat on their respective fastballs is a valid concern, because it shrinks their margin of error, and forces them to avoid the velocity loss typical of most starters as they age.

All that said, Fister is a very good pitcher, as is Haren, and yes, each is slightly undervalued. A lot of early attention at the time of this trade centered upon the return for Fister, which is, by consensus, tepid. The Tigers got two left-handed pitchers, one an immediate bullpen addition (in Ian Krol) and one a near-ready starter with modest upside (Robbie Ray), and utility player/second baseman Steve Lombardozzi. The feeling is that the Tigers either hold Ray in unbelievably high esteem or needed to free up some money so badly that they forsook an honest search for the best deal out there. Fister is under team control for two more years, many have pointed out, and a pitcher of his caliber has considerable surplus value over that term—value that would seem to eclipse the combined value of the three players for whom he was dealt.

I share that last view, but don’t affirm the implicit conclusion many have drawn: that the Tigers needed to do better. There are some flawed assumptions there, and they don’t all hold up to scrutiny.

Auction-house baseball

Imagine that baseball was perpetually engaged in a sort of Wall Streetesque player exchange, an enclave not unlike the Winter Meetings, where all executives and agents and available players stood in full view of one another and could gauge the availability, or price, of every player at all times. In this frenzied, fast-moving marketplace, occasional mistakes would happen, but a very rational market price would emerge on everyone. Player agents would be able to truly auction their clients off to the highest bidder, if they so chose, and teams would never have to make a trade without weighing all of their options, and I mean all of them.

Have you got a good picture of that, in your head? The constant chatter, the glass dividing walls throughout the chamber that all glow with reams of data, the shouting of bids on Jarrod Saltalamacchia from one end of the chamber to the other? Good. Now crumple up that image, and throw it away. That’s not how baseball works, and whether because too many of the game’s most prominent bloggers have financial backgrounds or because we all just want to believe rationality is more real than it really is, we spend far too much time these days acting like GMs have all their options on holograms, encircling their heads, and need only to make the right choice.

What’s buying, selling and trading baseball players really like? It’s like making a major purchase. Any purchase works, really, but it’s best if the products aren’t directly comparable (yes, a Camry is like a Taurus, but there are differences) and there’s someone around trying to sell you the product (so, a jeweler, or a Best Buy laptop guy, not a Wal-Mart associate or the Cub Foods deli lead). That’s a more realistic model. In those cases, it’s one party’s job to be either extremely well-prepared and researched in terms of their alternatives—and the other party’s job to not let the customer walk out of the store, or hang up the phone, until the sale is made. Now, imagine that the prices for these goods aren’t even fixed, that they move and change every day, and that the only way to know them, for sure, is to pay them.

That’s where baseball executives really are when they’re making deals like these. It’s Mike Rizzo’s job to keep Dave Dombrowski on the phone, and close the deal. It’s Terry Ryan’s job, if he wants to get Ricky Nolasco on a four-year deal and is willing to pay $49 million, not to let Matt Sosnick leave the room, either to shop that offer or to embrace the potential desperation of some team that, by New Year’s Day, has still not fleshed out its rotation. The marketplace isn’t perfectly rational, and never will be.

Players aren’t produce

Another crucial variable, of course, is the fact that every player is a different asset from every other player. Too often, Internet analysts get bogged down in marginal-value takes on players, summing their total projected value and weighing it against their salary (be it fixed or in question) to determine their worth. Another common tack is to bin players, starting pitchers league-average or better with two remaining seasons of control over here, free-agent utilitymen over there.

While helpful, those heuristics aren’t how things are (or at least should be) done when teams are actually valuing and exchanging players. Each team values each guy differently. Analytics return values, but teams look at scouting reports to help figure out how a player’s skills might translate across leagues or into new parks. They consider the player’s aging profile. They consider how their targets fit the roster as it stands. We talk far too abstractly and broadly about decisions that smart people are making on individual, granular levels.

That shows up in this deal, in that while left-handed relievers aren’t overwhelmingly valuable as a group, the Tigers needed to get one if they were trading away a starting pitcher. Losing Fister means sliding Drew Smyly into the starting rotation, which is a solid move. Smyly, though, was the only competent lefty in the team’s bullpen last season. Ian Krol will replace Smyly, so although he may not be an exceptional asset, he fits the Tigers to a tee.

Ditto Steve Lombardozzi. First of all, as he will be 25 next season, he likely deserves greater benefit of the doubt than he has gotten after a very rough 2013. He’s impatient and utterly without power, which makes him about 40 years late as an offensive player, but he makes a ton of contact, and he’s a solid defender at second or third base, or in left field. Right now, the Tigers have a second baseman (Ian Kinsler) who’s getting on in years and has never been terrifically durable; a third baseman (top prospect Nick Castellanos) who spent the last year and a half playing corner outfield spots in the minor leagues; and a left fielder (Andy Dirks) that absolutely no one seems to think will remain the left fielder for long. Lombardozzi isn’t good enough to start in the big leagues, but he’s a strong bench player, and Dombrowski looked past the profile to see that Lombardozzi could help his team.

Next step: Nathan

Now, some of the money saved by going from Fister in the rotation and Smyly in the bullpen to Smyly and Krol has been allocated to saving games, as the Tigers are reportedly close to grabbing Joe Nathan. That gives a bit of roundness to the trade. By clearing financial space, Dombrowski ended up with Smyly starting, Krol as a lefty set-up man and Nathan at the back end, rather than Fister starting, Smyly in relief and (for instance) John Axford as the closer. He also got Ray, a prospect who should be ready, if needed, for fill-in work as a starter by the second half of the season. That’s a safety net the Tigers didn’t have before.

Dombrowski has built the creaky, hyper-talented roster. He’s built a behemoth. That netted him three straight division titles and a trip to the World Series, but it never seemed perfectly sustainable, and it occasionally got ugly. Beginning with the deal that sent Prince Fielder to Texas in exchange for Kinsler, Dombrowski has spent this winter building a team where no one need feel out of place, one with a better blend of skill sets, a smoother, deeper team. With Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer at the top of the roster, the Tigers still don’t lack elite talent.

The good, boring Nationals

Twitter trafficks primarily in snark and Schadenfreude, so the Tigers are getting most of the headlines over this. The Nationals, though, did very well. Fister files into their rotation about the way he did for the Tigers, third on his best days, fourth on other people’s best. His ground-ball proclivity, which was just about to pay off after two miserable years in front of a Miguel Cabrera-at-third-base infield, will have to survive any lingering throwing issues for third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and the learning curve of converted third baseman Anthony Rendon at second, but it’s an asset. As long as he stays healthy, Fister should help Washington reclaim its primacy in the NL East. It’s not as interesting or nuanced a move from this side of the looking glass, but it’s a prettier one.

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