The Astros didn't do a whole lot in free agency this offseason outside of bringing back outfielder Colby Rasmus and relief pitcher Tony Sipp. However, the one MLB veteran free agent signing Houston brought in from the outside was Doug Fister -- on a 1-year, $7 million dollar contract.
Formerly of the Seattle Mariners, Detroit Tigers and most recently the Washington Nationals, Fister is coming off a 2015 campaign that saw him post a career-worst 4.19 ERA that led to a bullpen assignment in the final months of the season.
This led to Fister being referred to a, "third-tier choice," among the available free agent pitchers this offseason. Of course, Houston is betting that Fister can regain his 2014 form, in which he pitched to a career-best 2.41 ERA with Washington. However, Fister likely was probably better in 2012-2013 -- the two seasons in which he averaged groundball rates above 50 percent and more than seven strikeouts per nine innings.
Those same statistics were among the main reasons why Fister struggled in 2015. The right-hander induced groundballs at just a 44.6 percent rate and struck out a measly 5.5 batters per nine innings.
Potentially the cause of Fister's struggles? A lack of fastball velocity. Fangraphs' Jeff Sullivan explained at the time of the signing:
Here's the fact of the matter: as a starting pitcher, between 2014 - 2015, Fister lost 1.9 miles per hour off his fastball. He'd already lost about a mile from the year before, and he'd already lost another mile from his career peak.
Yeah, not great. And Fister likely isn't going to get a ton of it back as Sullivan went on to note. Plus, Fister missed significant time last season due to arm troubles. Nevertheless, at $7 million for one year, Houston doesn't have much to lose, especially with the salary flexibility it possesses.
As for Fister's potential role for Houston, that remains to be seen. Behind Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Lance McCullers and Mike Fiers, there appears to be an inevitable battle this spring for the fifth spot in the rotation between Fister and Scott Feldman.
Feldman made his final start of 2015 on the first of September before being shut down due to a shoulder injury. He did, however, post a 3.90 ERA in 18 starts. The two are extremely similar, pitching with low velocity and relying on ground balls while striking out few.
It's hard to say who has the upper hand currently, but Houston should be pleased that it has two veteran starters that are reliable in the No. 5 spot of the rotation. Feldman has never been as good as Fister was at his peak, but it's tough to tell them apart by their 2015 numbers. Their battle will likely be one of the notable stories throughout March.