Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | March 31, 2010

Tigers Trade Robertson to Florida

Faced with a glut at the back end of their starting rotation, yesterday the Detroit Tigers traded Left Hander Nate Robertson back to his original organization, the Florida Marlins, in exchange for a 23 year old minor league left-handed reliever named Jay Voss.   Voss was rated by Baseball America as Florida’s #23 prospect entering 2010 and began his pro career in 2007 as a starter.    After two very forgettable seasons in the New York-Penn and Sally leagues, he found himself moved to the bullpen in the Florida State League in 2009 where he began to find some success.    He only pitched slightly more than 13 innings before earning the promotion to AA Jacksonville of the Southern League where he closed out the year striking out nearly a batter per inning and an ERA of 2.97 (FIP 3.17).

Robertson spent most of the spring with the Tigers embroiled in a battle for a spot in the back end of the Tigers rotation along with Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Willis.   Having apparently lost that battle, the Tigers seemed reluctant to put him in the bullpen (or possibly Robertson himself was reluctant to go to the bullpen) and that paved the way for this deal to be made.

I’m not a fan of how this trade went down for the Tigers.  The message sent by this deal — And the bottom line that comes out of it — Is that the Tigers trust Dontrelle Willis with a spot in their rotation more than Nate Robertson.   This seems to be a bad judgment on its own, but moreover, by jettisoning Robertson entirely it seems to send the message that they trust Dontrelle Willis with a spot in their rotation period.

Make no mistake, both pitchers have been bad in the recent past, but they are not comparable in how bad they have been and Willis has been by far the worse of the two.  Not only that, but Robertson has been better than Willis in the spring (I don’t put credence on spring numbers, but I’m just furthering the point here), and Robertson had a far easier to grasp legitimate reason for his recent lack of performance — He had masses in his elbow.   Willis’ struggles are more nebulous and difficult to pin down.  It is claimed that he suffers with anxiety, there have been whispers about his knee and his back at various times, but nobody really seems to know for certain what ails Willis, what will fix him (if anything), or what his prognosis is.   With Robertson, there seems to be a clear line between “hurt arm” and “shoddy performance”.    When he returned from his injury last season he pitched below average baseball, which is nothing to jump up and down about, but it is both serviceable and better than “bad baseball”, which is what he delivered before he got his elbow checked out, and which is what Willis has delivered since joining the Tigers.

In light of the aforementioned paragraph, it doesn’t make sense that the Tigers would elect to keep Willis over Robertson.  Certainly, it could be the case that the Tigers deemed both as unworthy members of the team and sought to trade whichever one they could and it was Robertson that had the most trade value, but in addition to dealing Robertson the Tigers are also paying all but $400k of his salary, so what they’ve done has amounted to giving him away to the Marlins for a left-handed reliever of moderate upside on a team that already has a surplus of good, young, cost-controlled left-handed relief pitching.

There is no guarantee that Robertson would have been effective for Detroit (or will be effective for Florida) and in fact it seems that odds are that he would not be, but as of March 31st the Tigers are paying virtually his entire salary until the end of the season — Which is what they would have done even if he were not traded.   It seems to be not very prudent to make this deal when they could have at the very least seen what he had to offer or ensured that the options they elected to stick with in Bonderman and Willis did not implode.   This simply was a deal that did not have to happen or need to happen.

Don’t misread the tone, on balance it isn’t a huge deal overall.  This is about a guy who may have ended up being cut anyway and this is about the back end of the rotation.  However, all moves add up, and this just smacks of one that was completely unnecessary and has very low potential for reward.

Voss is slated to open the season in Erie, though there is an outside chance that he will start in Toledo.

For Florida’s part, they were heading into the season staring at a rotation with five right handed pitchers and they now have the ability to stick Robertson at the back end of their rotation to give them a left hander, which also will drop Clay Hensley out of the rotation and into a long relief role in their bullpen.   They gave up a minor leaguer of little consequence to take a flier on a starter in Robertson who could round out the back end of their bullpen and who carries very little risk (other than the potential that he may not be effective when he pitches and therefore costs them games) because the Marlins are only paying him the veteran’s minimum of $400k.   Robertson was originally drafted by the Marlins and was traded to Detroit for Mark Redman prior to the 2003 season.

One interesting side note to this trade is that Mike Laga’s tenure as a Tiger could be linked to Nate Robertson.  Laga was the Tigers first round pick in 1980 and retired as a member of the San Francisco Giants in 1990.  This trade now imparts Laga’s “Tiger lineage” to Voss.  We’ll see if that line dies with Voss or if he ends up being traded or otherwise responsible for bringing in another player into the organization.

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