At the start of the 2015 season, former Tigers starting pitcher Doug Fister appeared to be a lock to receive a qualifying offer after the season on his way to a multi-year free agent contract. As the season unfolded, Fister's route to fame and fortune took a sharp detour. He wound up on the disabled list and eventually in the bullpen for the Washington Nationals, who struggled their way to a second place finish in the NL East.
Now, Fister would probably like to sign a one-year contract with a team that will put him in their starting rotation with a chance to rebuild his value. That team, according to Buster Olney of ESPN, could be the Tigers. Olney tweeted that the Tigers were one of several teams interested in signing the 31-year-old righthander this offseason. Once one of the more underrated pitchers in baseball, Fister is now a potential buy-low candidate, especially if the Tigers can resurrect him to his previous heights.
Who is he?
Fister is a 6'8 righthander who came up with the Seattle Mariners, and was traded to the Tigers during the 2011 season. He was one of the top 10 to 15 pitchers in the American League every season with Detroit according to most measures. From 2011 to 2014, he ranked 10th in the majors among starting pitchers with 12.7 fWAR. His 3.30 ERA ranked 13th, while his 3.21 FIP was seventh. He also had the sixth lowest walk rate (1.81 BB/9) and third-lowest home run rate (0.61 HR/9).
Fister was traded to the Nationals for three prospects in November 2013, a deal widely considered the worst of Dave Dombrowski's tenure in Detroit. In his first season with Washington, Fister went 16-6 with a 2.41 ERA. He struggled early in the 2015 season, and was placed on the disabled list on May 15 with a flexor tendon strain in his right arm. He struggled after returning, accumulating a 4.60 ERA in 15 starts. The Nats moved him to the bullpen, where he posted a 2.12 ERA in 10 ten relief appearances.
Why should we care?
If Fister is anywhere close to the pitcher that he was for three seasons in Detroit and his first year with the Nationals, he is a valuable addition to any rotation in either league. He delivers the ball with an overhand delivery atop his 6'8 frame, locating down in the strike zone and on a downward plane that makes the ball very difficult to hit. He is a groundball pitcher with some of the best ratios in the game, other than his strikeout rate.
Fister will likely be looking for a one-year contract unless there is a team willing to completely disregard his 2015 difficulties and give him a lucrative multi-year deal. MLB Trade Rumors forecasts a one-year, $10 million deal, a bit lower than his $11.4 million salary in 2015. If he returns to form, he may be worth a qualifying offer and could net his team a compensation draft pick, except that we don't really know what compensation system will be in place a year from now. Still, his price tag will be less than the vast majority of free agents. If he returns to his previous form, he will be one of the bargain buys of the offseason.
Why should we stay away?
If you're obsessed with strikeout rates, Fister is not your man. He struck out just 5.50 batters per nine innings last season, and topped out at just 7.63 strikeouts per nine with Detroit in 2012. There is also the obvious question of whether Fister has recovered from his injury and whatever other issues caused the turbulence in his numbers last season. It is these concerns that will keep teams from giving Fister a contract in line with others who received qualifying offers. Many of those are forecast to be in the four year, $60 million range or larger.
Will he end up in Detroit?
At a projected salary of $10 million, the Tigers could save $5 million on the payroll to acquire another bullpen arm, or put towards an outfielder. Chances are that Fister's contract will be laden with incentives based on innings pitched, and the ultimate incentive would be a vesting option for another season. He will not be the first choice to take a spot in the Tigers' rotation, but could make an affordable second addition.