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Signed RHP Doug Fister to a one-year deal worth $7 million. [1/28]
It’s hard to say what anyone sees in Doug Fister, at this point. He’s only a year removed from a 2.41 ERA in 25 starts, but that season was a mirage, really: his DRA was 3.73, and his cFIP (which is more predictive and describes his expressed skill level better) was an ugly 109. In other words, in addition to the miserable 2015 he just had—marred not only by injuries, but by a demotion to the bullpen—he had a lead-in campaign marred by injury and a pronounced failure to dominate opposing hitters.
When Fister was an honest-to-God no. 2 starter, he averaged just under 90 miles per hour on both his four-seamer and his sinker. In 2014, that fell to roughly 88.7 mph, and last season, calamitously, he spiraled all the way down to 86.7 mph. Fister fanned roughly 19 percent of opposing batters during his two full seasons as a Tiger, but as his velocity plunged, so did his strikeout rate: 14.8 percent in 2014, a flat 14.0 percent in 2015. The first year, he was able to counterbalance that by absolutely pounding the strike zone, walking barely one in every 30 batters faced. In 2015, though, the walk rate regressed to his Detroit days, at 5.4 percent of all opponents (still fine, but 50 percent higher).
Fister will be 32 this season. He’s tall, he doesn’t throw hard, he doesn’t strike anyone out, and he’s dealt with injuries for two consecutive seasons. As much as his track record tugs at the back of the mind, this is exactly the kind of pitcher who simply loses it one day, and is never good again. When I saw that the Astros signed him for $7 million, though, I thought for a while, looking for the indicator I’d somehow missed. Something must have drawn them to Fister. Something must be boosting his market to this level. He must have some core skill that makes him worth their time.
Then it hit me: that’s just not true anymore. This winter, in this free-agent market, $7 million is just the price of a lottery ticket. Fister was good once, and he could be good again. That’s overwhelmingly unlikely, and there is no hidden reason why you ought to expect it. Because of Fister’s past, though, it’s certifiably possible, and anyone who can say that this year gets $7 million to try and prove themselves. For the Astros, the risk is low, as long as (if he should crack their rotation, which is no guarantee) they keep the leash short. It’s perfectly possible there’s nothing left of the Fister statheads loved. —Matthew Trueblood
The fact that he landed in a place where he’s more or less guaranteed a rotation spot on the Opening Day roster is almost enough to keep the arrow steady. But there are an awful lot of factors working against this being a positive move for whatever fantasy value Fister still possesses, from the league switch on down.
On balance the new home address makes for an ostensibly neutral move, though it's a net-negative for Fister's particular profile, as left-handed hitters get a significant boost on their potential homerun balls relative to Washington. That's a big deal for a pitcher whose traditionally strong homerun rate has scrambled rapidly north as his fastball velocity has declined, and left-handers were a particular problem for him during his abbreviated campaign a year ago. Once a fastball heads out pasture-way it rarely wanders on home, and while missing velocity isn't as much of a be-all, end-all for a guy like Fister, it's still important—especially so once you get down into the velocity range he sat last year. Pitches lose the bite on their movement, and the poorly located ones are that much more dangerous.
Case in point, Fister’s groundball rate. Washington's defense was one of the larger disappointments in the National League last year, and Fister moves to Houston and a unit that finished in the top four in defensive efficiency last year. On paper, not a bad move. There's a caveat there, however: his new supporting middle-infield tandem actually rated quite poorly by FRAA, with Carlos Correa in particular drawing a brutal rating. This is less of a pressing issue than it would've been for the extreme groundball pitcher that used to live in Detroit. But the latter day Fister is one prone to harder contact that gets lifted much more frequently. Yes, the balls that stay in the yard will have a marginally better chance at getting flagged down. But between the extra few that find the seats in Houston and the lack of success he’s likely to have if he continues down the path of non-groundball pitching, there isn’t enough here to mark a note in the “plus” column for defensive context.
One decided improvement for Fister will be his likely battery-mate, as new primary catcher Jason Castro performed as a significantly superior defender behind the plate relative to the Ramos/Lobaton tandem he worked with last year (though it should be noted that the latter was solid). Castro was particularly strong in his framing work last year—a not inconsequential skill to support a hurler whose calling card is command down in the zone, especially one who must increasingly nibble to survive.
Still, the positive there isn’t enough to offset the rest of the negatives. Houston ain’t San Francisco, and Fister’s fantasy value probably would’ve needed a landing spot like the Bay to jump into shallower mixed league relevance. Still, he’s just two years removed from producing $22 of standard value, and the Astros offense and likely-good bullpen gives him at least a puncher’s chance to run into similar Win karma. The lack of whiffs and batting practice velocity leave him precious little margin for error, however, and I can’t see him as more than a late-round flyer in most formats.
Feldman returns after an injury-plagued campaign to the final year of a three-year deal, and he may also come back as the odd man out of the Houston rotation. The shoulder issues that shut him down last year threaten a late return to action after spring training is well underway, and whatever AL-only value he may have had as a likely starter on a good team probably evaporates in the wake of this deal. —Wilson Karaman
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Though he missed the Padres’ Top 10 Prospect list this year, Rymer Liriano did appear in the article we published to post that list. In it, we noted that Liriano isn’t the high-octane prospect many dreamed on before Tommy John surgery stole a crucial developmental year from him, but “there are still three above-average tools in his speed, glove, and arm.” Unmentioned there: the fact that Liriano had a solid .290 TAv at Triple-A El Paso last season. Contact issues plague him still, and really crippled him in his 38-game whiff of the big leagues in 2014, and ideally, he’d develop more power to suit a corner-outfield profile.
Step back and look at the whole picture, though, and there’s a lot about which to be excited with Liriano, even four years after he first appeared on prospect lists. He’s going to have solid value in the field and on the bases. He’s drawn walks at a good clip in each of the last two seasons. If the power does come along a little bit, or even if he can simply sustain the BABIP skill he’s demonstrated in the minors, Liriano had first-division upside. He’s a big, strong, fast, right-handed hitter, so that BABIP (it was .376 in 2015, .326 in 2014) isn’t a total fluke. He also played 20 games in center field in El Paso last year, so the Brewers (who figure to start Kirk Nieuwenhuis in center field most of the time) will probably give him at least a look there. If he proves tenable at that spot, the game changes, because his stick is plenty for a center fielder. No matter how this turns out, Liriano joins a growing list of good pickups by new GM David Stearns, as he looks to rebuild the Brewers. (He also joins an even longer list of Brewers outfield options, so Ryan Braun rumors are going to run pretty hot for a while.)
From the Padres side: What on Earth are they doing? The pitcher they received in exchange for Liriano is, by most accounts, a non-entity. Maybe they didn’t have much leverage, after they designated Liriano for assignment recently, but that raises the question of just why they thought Alexei Ramirez had more to contribute to their organization than Liriano did, in the first place. A.J. Preller was fun, at first, because he was a doer of big things, but since about halfway through last winter, it’s been fairly clear that he’s in over his head. He hasn’t come close to managing a full recovery of all the future value he poured into the half-baked, ill-fated pursuit of contention last season. The Padres are a train wreck, separated from the NL West cellar only by the seemingly equally directionless Rockies. They had better pick a lane fast, because they’re about to be squashed into smithereens as the Diamondbacks merge onto the competitive highway the Dodgers and Giants have occupied for a while. Preller has set an already listless organization back about five years since he took office, and in truth, he’d better either turn things around unexpectedly or get serious about a full-scale rebuild within the next few months. Otherwise, the Padres are going to be right back in their most familiar role: total anonymity. —Matthew Trueblood
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Signed RHP Bronson Arroyo to a minor-league deal worth $2 million if he makes the team. [1/28]
Prior to undergoing Tommy John surgery in July 2014, Arroyo had put together a convincing case as the league's most reliable innings eater. He entered that season having started 30 or more games in nine consecutive campaigns—a feat made more impressive since he'd missed pushing it to 10 by a single start. Arroyo didn't have the nastiest stuff or the quickest heater; what he had was brains, guts, and a fascinating ability to stay healthy while other, more exciting pitchers dropped like beats. Then his elbow popped and he was no longer a remarkable bastion of health; rather, he was a forgotten man whose name was mentioned last season only when he—okay, really his contract—was traded twice.
But enough about the past—what about the present? Arroyo is four weeks from his 39th birthday, which, when combined with his year-plus layoff, makes it hard to see him providing much value to the Nationals. And to think, that's without considering how he was already working with a thin margin of error before the surgery (such is life for a homer-prone pitcher whose fastball sits in the mid-80s). Fortunately, the Nationals are in position to use Arroyo as a safety net; in other words, he's almost certainly not making the roster unless a) he out-pitches Tanner Roark and/or b) someone gets injured during camp.
Given the cost—and the likelihood that Austin Voth (or Lucas Giolito, if you're swinging from the heels) will overtake the fifth starter's job before season ends—that's an acceptable plan. —R.J. Anderson