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Mailbag: Why didn't the Tigers sign Doug Fister?

The Astros inked the former Tigers righthander to an incentive-laden one-year deal on Thursday.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Two years ago, the Detroit Tigers surprised baseball -- and this blog, in particular -- when they traded righthander Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals. The return on that trade was questionable at the time, and is still unproven today, though Shane Greene has shown flashes of lofty potential. Fister posted a 2.41 ERA and 4.5 rWAR for the Nationals in 2014, but has missed time on the disabled list over the past two years, totaling 267 innings.

Fister's decline was ill-timed as he hit free agency after his worst season in the major leagues. He allowed a 4.19 ERA and 4.55 FIP in 103 innings in 2015, and was worth just 0.2 WAR. To add insult to injury, Fister finished the season in the Nats' bullpen as rookie Joe Ross emerged on the scene.

Many viewed Fister as a potential buy-low candidate this winter, and the Houston Astros are the potential lottery winner. Fister and the Astros agreed to a one-year contract worth $7 million on Thursday, with another potential $5 million in incentives. Time will tell if the move pays off for Houston, but it's a far cry from the $15-odd million Fister would have made had he been a free agent two years prior.

I've been puzzled by Mike Pelfrey's two-year deal since it was signed, but he and Fister are currently trending in opposite directions. I hinted at Fister's injury troubles above, but here's the black-and-white version: Fister missed two months in 2014 with a shoulder issue, then landed on the disabled list in 2015 with elbow troubles. His average fastball velocity went from just under 90 miles per hour in 2013 to 86.9 miles per hour in 2015. Fister's ground ball rate also dipped from 54.3 percent in 2013 to just 44.6 percent in 2015.

Pelfrey, for all his faults, is at least on the upswing. His average fastball velocity hit 94 miles per hour in 2015, his fastest since his early days with the New York Mets. He missed nearly all of 2014 due to ulnar nerve decompression surgery, but  made 30 starts in 2015 with a 51 percent ground ball rate. That high ground ball rate helped him limit home runs, as he gave up just 11 dingers all season.

Shortly after Pelfrey was signed, HookSlide detailed how the Tigers' stellar middle infield could help boost his numbers.

The Tigers posted a +17 defensive runs saved in 2015, and Pelfrey's Twins posted a -9 DRS. The net effect would be a gain of +26 defensive runs saved on the season. The American League average hits-to-runs ratio in 2015 was 2-to-1, so applying this ratio to 26 defensive runs saved yields an estimated 52 hits saved for the season. Pelfrey would only be one of five starting pitchers drawing from this total, which means his 20 percent share comes out to about 10.5 hits saved.

Fister may have the higher ceiling of the two, but Pelfrey seems like the safer bet to stay healthy right now. That alone may not be worth the extra year on his deal, but I'd rather have him than Fister in 2016.

Assuming our roster is set and there are no more additions this offseason who bats first and second in the lineup? Kinsler is almost guaranteed to fill one of those spots, but there doesn’t seem to be an obvious candidate for the other. Is there any possibility that they do something that differs from the "old baseball wisdom" and bat Miggy second?

This question was asked before the Tigers' last minor roster shakeup, but even with Justin Upton in the fold, there are still questions about how this lineup fits together. Upton isn't your prototypical No. 2 hitter, and the Tigers don't have anyone else tailor-made for that role on the roster. Ian Kinsler filled that role for parts of 2015, and will bat in one of the top two spots in 2016. I don't see Brad Ausmus moving Miguel Cabrera up in the order, and I'm not entirely sure I'd want to do that anyway.

If I were the one constructing the Opening Day lineup, I'd hit Upton second. He has the kind of power that old school managers like Jim Leyland enjoy having in the No. 2 spot, and he draws walks at a higher rate than anyone else in the running. With so much thump elsewhere in the lineup, it almost seems like a waste to stick him sixth in the order when you could get him more looks at the plate batting second.

Other pluses to hitting Upton second:

  • He grades out as an above average baserunner, and even stole 19 bases in 2015. He doesn't need to be a huge threat to run, but smart baserunning in front of Cabrera is of the utmost importance.
  • Upton has a career 40.4 percent ground ball percentage, and was at just 38.7 percent in 2015. This is far lower than other players on the roster (namely Anthony Gose and Jose Iglesias). Fewer ground balls in this spot means fewer double plays, another key when Cabrera is in the on-deck circle.
  • Lineup protection may be a myth, but putting runners on base in front of Cabrera is the easiest way to get him pitches to hit (call it reverse lineup protection, if anything). Upton's career .352 on-base percentage is well above anything Gose or Iglesias will produce full-time.

Then there's the dark horse candidate. We have championed Nick Castellanos' breakout for months now, pointing at everything from a mini-benching in June to an improvement in plate discipline as reasons why he's the real deal offensively. He is already a career .288/.351/.455 hitter against left-handed pitchers, and his .817 OPS after June 23, 2015 only adds fuel to the fire. I liked this idea much more when the best options at the top of the order were Gose and Iglesias -- Castellanos shouldn't supplant Upton for all but the most dire circumstances -- but he could be another option if things go awry.

Who had a worse offseason: Tyler Collins or Bryan Holaday?

I was all set to offer a well-reasoned response detailing how Collins was teased with a major league job before the Upton signing, but then Bryan Holaday had to go and do this.

But really, it's Collins. Holaday was only going to be a backup at best while Collins had a shot at a starting role, so expectations were different. Plus, Holaday still has an outside chance at a major league job in spring training, while Collins is waiting for the injury bug to strike.

Those dance moves, though.

Does it make sense to move Michael Fulmer to the bullpen for a year, Chris Sale style?

Spending a full year in the bullpen wouldn't be the best thing for Fulmer's development. He has dealt with injury problems throughout his career, and only topped out at 124 2/3 innings last season. Even without the injury concerns, it will take two or three more years to bump him up to the 180-200 inning range expected out of most frontline starters. Fulmer's secondary stuff also needs work, and keeping him in the minor leagues is the best way for him to hone that changeup and curveball.

There are ways to get creative, though. Fulmer may only top out at 150-160 innings in 2016, but he can split those between the rotation in Triple-A and the bullpen in the major leagues (or vice versa, if the opportunity arises). His fastball and slider appear to be major league ready, and he could probably get big league hitters out tomorrow if asked to. It will take a couple injuries or an absolutely monster spring for Fulmer to make the major league roster out of camp, but don't be surprised if he spends time in the Tigers bullpen down the stretch. Keeping him there will limit his innings -- he may be pitching into September or October if things go well -- and give him a taste of the big leagues at the same time.