Most everything in 2014 will be new for Nationals pitcher Doug Fister, acquired in a trade Monday with the Detroit Tigers: Different city, different teammates, different league.
One thing hasn't changed for the 6-foot-8 sinkerballer, however, is that he's still pitching in an elite rotation.
Soon enough, Fister will meet teammates Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez. He will shake their hands and talk shop and figure out what makes them tick. And Fister can be reasonably confident that it won't be wasted time.
All of those pitchers are under team control for 2015, too, so Washington has its top four starters on board for the next two seasons, a luxury few teams in the majors can boast. And with prices for even competent free-agent pitchers sky-high, that affords the Nats a nice weapon: financial flexibility.
"It's comforting to know that you've got good quality starting pitchers that you control," Nats general manager Mike Rizzo said. "It doesn't stop you from having a long-term outlook on your roster. You always have to be looking ahead and looking forward. And I think we do a good job of that. You can't be complacent. You have to constantly be thinking. You have to be creative."
Scott Kazmir, out of baseball for almost two full seasons, rebounded with a 4.04 ERA in Cleveland last year and earned $22 million over two years with Oakland. Veteran Tim Hudson, now 38, signed with San Francisco for the same term and $23 million after missing the final 10 weeks of 2013 after a gruesome ankle injury. Even Josh Johnson, with a checkered injury history and a 6.20 ERA with Toronto last summer, earned $8 million from San Diego.
And these are relatively modest prices. Better or more consistent or healthier pitchers are expected to go for far more at the industry's Winter Meetings next week in Orlando.
And so the Nats have established a different way to pay for pitching. They use prospects as trade chips. It was how they got Gio Gonzalez from Oakland two years ago. In return for two strong seasons from Gonzalez, who was third in the National League Cy Young Award voting in 2012, Washington gave up right-handed pitchers Brad Peacock and A.J. Cole and lefty Tom Milone along with catcher Derek Norris.
Milone has posted ERAs of 3.74 and 4.14 in 57 starts with the A's. Norris has a .698 OPS over 473 at-bats. Peacock is now in Houston. Cole is back with the Nats after the three-way Michael Morse trade last winter and probably still has the highest ceiling of any player in that deal.
The price for Fister wasn't so high. Washington gave up utility man Steve Lombardozzi, reliever Ian Krol and — the key part of the deal — pitching prospect Robbie Ray, a 2010 draft pick who showed promise in his age-21 season with a nice year split between Single-A and Double-A.
Compare Fister's numbers with other established pitchers traded for bigger prospect hauls in recent years, including James Shields, Matt Garza and R.A. Dickey, and the deal looks even better for the Nats. Of course, that's only if Fister performs up to his track record over the last three years and Ray doesn't explode into an elite prospect.
Fister made just $4 million last season and will be closer to $7 million once the arbitration process is finished this winter. According to Rizzo, the two sides have not yet discussed an extension. Fister is under team control through 2015.
Strasburg made $3.9 million in 2013 and will get a healthy raise this offseason. But without the benefit of an open market, his price can only go so high from one year to the next. Strasburg wouldn't be a free agent until after the 2016 season.
Zimmermann is also arbitration-eligible after making $5.35 million in 2013. He is in line for a contract extension, which is more likely if he's willing to forego a year or two of free agency. As a Super-2 player he earned an extra year of arbitration money — four rounds instead of three — and will be a free agent after the 2015 season.
Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras, is notorious for not going the contract-extension route with his younger clients, though the team may be willing to negotiate his remaining arbitration years, including this one, to keep that cost from ballooning too high.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, is under team control until at least 2017 at escalating salaries of $8.5 million, $11 million and then $12 million.
All told, these are Fister's teammates for the next two seasons, at the very least.
"It was such an honor to be a part of the staff that we had [in Detroit] with Scherzer and Verlander," Fister said. "But coming into D.C. now, it's gonna be the same thing with Strasburg and Zimmermann and Gonzalez and [Ross] Detwiler. ... I'm definitely looking forward to being surrounded by such terrific pitchers."
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