(Photo by McClatchy Newspapers)
On Aug. 12, 1987, the Tigers stood 1 1/2 games behind Toronto in the AL East. Needing a boost in their starting rotation, they sent a promising but erratic 20-year-old minor-league pitcher named John Smoltz to the Braves for veteran Doyle Alexander. Alexander was a solid pitcher who had hit some rough times with a bad Braves team, going 5-10 with a 4.13 ERA in 16 starts that year.
But as soon as he hit Detroit, Alexander was a sensation, teaming with ace Jack Morris to send the Tigers streaking to the division title. They went 33-18 after the trade, with Alexander going an amazing 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA in 11 starts. He threw three shutouts and was a major factor in the Tigers beating out the Blue Jays by two games.
“I thought Doyle would help us, you know, win a few games for us if he was healthy,” Tigers third baseman Darrell Evans said in an article I dug up from the San Diego Union-Tribune on Oct. 3, 1987. “But I really didn’t think he’d be a savior.”
You get where I’m going with this, I’m sure. Doug Fister has been this year’s Doyle Alexander for the Tigers. He came over from a bad Mariners team on July 30 in a deal that really didn’t excite too many Tigers fans, based on Fister’s 3-12 record with the Mariners. But like Alexander, he was a sensation, going 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA in 11 games (10 starts) with the Tigers. He teamed with ace Justin Verlander to send the Tigers streaking to the Central Division title. They were 56-51, clinging to a 1.5-game load over the Indians when the deal was made. With Fister, they went 39-16 the rest of the way to win the division by 15 games. Some Tigers began to call him a savior, too.
This isn’t a perfect comparison. For one thing, Alexander was 36 years old at the time of the trade and nearing the end of his career. He went 14-11 for the Tigers in 1988, 6-18 in 1989, and was out of baseball, finishing with a 194-174 career mark. Fister, at age 27, should be entering his prime, and is under club control by the Tigers for the next four years. Another big difference is that Alexander, and the Tigers, flamed out in the 1987 postseason. They lost the best-of-seven LCS in five games to the Twins, with Alexander losing Games 1 and 5, with a 10.00 ERA. Fister struggled in his first postseason game, giving up six runs in 4 2/3 innings in losing the continuation of rain-delayed Game 1 to the Yankees. But he then beat the Yankees, at Yankee Stadium, in the decisive fifth game of the Division Series, and was superb last night in beating the Rangers.
Here’s an interesting piece from sportswriting legend John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press
which talks about Fister’s early days with Mariners pitching coach Rick Adair. And here’s one that talks about Tiger GM Dave Dombrowski’s persistence in dealing with Jack Zduriencik. It’s looking real good for the Tigers now, but of course this trade will ultimately be judged on how the four players received by Seattle — third baseman Francisco Martinez, outfielder Casper Wells, and pitchers Chance Ruffin and Charlie Furbush — perform.
The Doyle Alexander deal is now regarded by some as one of the worst in Tigers history, because Smoltz went on to become a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher with the Braves. But do you think Braves fans were fired up about receiving a guy who had been a 22nd-round draft pick two year earlier, and at the time of the trade was 4-10 with a 5.68 ERA in Double-A, with 81 walks and 86 strikeouts? You just never know. Here’s how Smoltz himself — who grew up in Detroit dreaming of playing for the Tigers — looked back at the trade 10 years later in a 1997 story in the Detroit Free Press:
With mixed emotions, he watched from a distance as Alexander made the trade an instant Tigers success, going undefeated in August and September.
“At first,” Smoltz conceded, “I was like, ‘Woooh, give me a break, 9-0, this trade’s gonna be the most lopsided ever. Give me a chance to make this trade work.’ But I was still rooting for them that year, I felt kinda responsible for them winning the division, because I got traded for the guy who won the division for them, basically.”
The Tigers have never been back to the playoffs.
The Braves have evolved into the most successful team in the major leagues in this decade, World Series champions in 1995, runners-up last season and in 1991-92.
Smoltz, who has seen both sides, said: “I don’t want this to come out the wrong way, but Detroit does some things that are really different in the minor leagues.
“I didn’t have a pitching coach. I really thought when I got out of high school there would be a lot of hands-on, a lot of teaching, and it really went the other way.
“The first guy I was with was Billy Muffett, and I rarely threw for him. I just did a bunch of drills. I mean all kinds of drills. Then John Hiller was a roving instructor and in the instructional league I saw Ralph Treuel.
“I can remember throwing big-league batting practice in Lakeland with Muffett in the dugout. Hiller came over to me and when I threw, he was yelling out stuff I was doing wrong. I almost hit (Tom) Brookens in the head, I almost hit (Alan) Trammell, I mean I was so nervous, I was just trying to throw BP and there were constant mechanical things.
“Then, during the season, I’d throw 30 minutes on the side sometimes and there was no one there. Poor Tommy Burgess, who I had in Single-A and Double-A, who I love to death as a manager, had no help. He had to do everything.
“They had somewhat of a motto: ‘The 1927 Yankees didn’t have it, so we don’t need it.’
“Here it’s just the opposite; they spend all the money in the minor leagues, more coaches, more pitching instructors at every level, and now you can see the result.
“For me _ though I wanted to play for the Detroit Tigers _ there couldn’t have been a better thing to ever happen to me than to be traded here.
“I went through the worst times and now I’m going through the best times.”
Will that sort of blossoming occur for one (or more) of the players acquired in the Fister trade? None of us can answer that. In the CBS story linked to above, it says, “In the end, the Tigers thought they gave up a lot. They view Martinez as a future star at third base, think Ruffin has a chance to pitch very well in the big leagues and view Wells as a potential starting outfielder.” Dombrowski told me much the same when I talked to him after the trade. This is one of those classic deals for which the evaluation of “who won” has the potential to change dramatically down the road. On the other hand, if Fister maintains his current success for several more years, and the prospects received by the Mariners don’t become standouts, it has the potential to be a disaster for Seattle. Or, perhaps, it could be a win-win — Fister remains a good pitcher, while the Mariners get a keeper or two out of the deal.
Let’s check back in a year. And then again in two, three and four years.