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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

April 16, 2013 at 1:38 PM

The Doug Fister trade, revisited

Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

Doug Fister takes the mound for the Tigers tonight at Safeco Field, a tangible reminder of what so far has been one of the least successful trades by Jack Zduriencik. There’s still time for the evaluation to change if a couple of young players acquired in the deal by the Mariners take a big step forward in their development, but so far it’s a win for Dave Dombrowski and the Tigers.

On the day of the deal — July 30, 2011 — Zduriencik was clearcut in laying out his rationale for the trade, which sent Fister and reliever David Pauley to the Tigers for outfielder Casper Wells, third-base prospect Francisco Martinez, left-handed pitcher Charlie Furbush, and a player to be named, who turned out to be reliever Chance Ruffin.

“In this deal what we did is we acquired players that we’re going to have for a long time,” Zduriencik said the night of the trade. “When you start looking at controlling younger players for five or six years, that’s pretty good. That’s something that we said; we wanted to accumulate talent and try to stockpile players who will be here for a long time, players that fit needs that we have.”

In the best-case scenario, Wells would have become a regular outfielder, Furbush a productive member of the rotation, Ruffin the closer, and Martinez, just 20 at the time of the trade, would have developed into a front-line third baseman. Obviously, it’s a lot to ask for all those things to happen, but none have yet occurred. Meanwhile, Fister is one of the most consistent starters in the American League, having gone 20-11 with a 2.94 ERA in 38 starts for the Tigers, including a 2-0, 2.77 mark this year and a 2-2, 2.97 showing in six postseason appearances (five starts, one of them a tough-luck loss in the World Series last year).

Pauley, who was pitching quite well for the Mariners at the time of the trade (2.15 ERA in 38 games), struggled with Detroit and drifted to the Angels and Blue Jays before landing back in the minor leagues with the Mariners last year. But he hasn’t been heard from since drawing a 50-game suspension from MLB last August for his second drug-abuse violation, termed a recreational drug.

Let’s look at the players the Mariners got:

  • Casper Wells. He played 124 games for the Mariners and showed some flashes, hitting 17 homers and putting up a .710 OPS. But the Mariners choose to keep Jason Bay instead of Wells this season to be their fifth outfielder, and Wells was designated for assignment. He landed with Toronto, who DFA’d him yesterday before Wells had even played a game for the Blue Jays. His career is in limbo right now. Obviously, he didn’t develop into the contributor the Mariners hoped.
  •  Charlie Furbush. Furbush has been the Mariners’ best pickup so far in the deal, finding a niche as a lefty in their pen. He struggled as a starter after coming over from Detroit, going 3-7 with a 6.62 ERA in 11 appearances (10 starts) in 2011. But last year, Furbush was outstanding in relief, putting up a 2.72 ERA in 48 appearances, allowing just 28 hits in 46 1/3 innings with 53 strikeouts. Opponents hit just .164 off him. So far this year Furbush has a 4.50 ERA in six appearances, but remains a key part of their bullpen.
  • Chance Ruffin. He’s no longer on the “closer of the future” track, having put up a 5.99 ERA last year in 50 games with Tacoma (after a promising 13-game showing with the Mariners after the trade in which he had a 3.86 ERA and struck out 15 in 14 innings). The Mariners dropped Ruffin to Double-A Jackson this year and have converted him to starting. He’s off to a promising start with a 1-0 record and 3.75 ERA after two starts, with 10 hits allowed in 12 innings. He has two walks and four strikeouts. Chris Gwynn, the Mariners’ director of player development, told me earlier this spring that the move was made to help get Ruffin to develop all his pitches. I talked to Jackson manager Jim Pankovits after Ruffin’s first start, and he said, “I had never seen him throw before that outing, but he seems to be embracing it. He certainly threw outstanding the other day. All his pitches were working, he was throwing strikes, getting ahead of hitters. He was not hit hard at all.”

Ruffin is just 24, so there’s still time for this one to have a positive ending for the Mariners.

  • Francisco Martinez. And Martinez, now 22, is no longer on the “third baseman of the future” track. He has been converted to center field, both to take better advantage of his speed, and because he wasn’t developing the power you look for in a corner infielder (18 homers in 1,617 minor-league at-bats). Martinez,  too, is playing for Double-A Jackson, where he hit just .227 in 95 games last year. Martinez was the No. 4-ranked prospect in the Tigers system at the time of the trade, but he’s no longer appearing very high on many prospects lists. So far this year, he’s hampered by a sore knee and is hitting just .206 for the Generals (7-for-34) with one extra-base-hit, a double.

Back to Pankovits again, on Martinez and the position switch: ““We’re trying to explore ways we can take advantage of his speed. He’s not a bad third baseman; as a matter of fact, he had a pretty good year defensively. But with his speed, we think his best chance to play at the big-league level is going to be as an outfielder or a utility-type player that has versatility, because he doesn’t hit with a lot of power.’’

So right now, out of the trade of Fister, a consistent winning starter and innings eater who is just 29 years old, making a reasonable $4 million, and still has two more years of club control, the Mariners have a reliever on the major-league roster, two projects in the minor leagues, and one outfielder shown the exit.

The door isn’t closed yet on this one, but so far it can’t be close to what they envisioned back on July 30, 2011.

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