To restate the problem for the millionth time: the Red Sox rotation has a lot of pitchers, but little reliability. With Wade Miley having gone to Seattle, Eduardo Rodriguez is as close to a sure thing as the Sox have after David Price, and he's only pitched 120 innings in the majors.
The ideal answer: add a solid pitcher. But that's looking less likely by the day. The Shelby Miller trade may well have made pitchers of his ilk prohibitively expensive, and the free agent market doesn't seem to hold the right option at the right price. So how else do the Red Sox try to defend against their own volatile rotation? By adding more volatile pieces. In this case, Doug Fister.
First, the basic concept. Why add more question marks? Because each question mark represents a chance at success. And while a team has a limited number of roster spots to offer up, the Red Sox have the luxury of storing up to four of their current rotation options in Triple-A: Joe Kelly, Roenis Elias, Henry Owens, and Brian Johnson could be manning the rotation in Pawtucket come April. Or, by all means, the bullpen in Fenway if the Sox are willing to bend on certain players' roles. So long as that path is open to them, they can find another pitcher--one who's good enough to demand a spot in the rotation but with enough red flags to keep their price down--and fit them in. One more lottery ticket in the mix.
And that's where Doug Fister comes in. As recently as 2014, Fister put up a 2.41 ERA in 164 innings of work. The Nationals were trying to extend him, but he saw big things on the horizon in free agency and elected to wait. Bad decision, as 2015 went horribly awry. And make no mistake, it's no mystery why. Fister is on the wrong side of 30, and his velocity is dropping, and it's not like he had a bunch to spare.
This may be starting to sound a little too familiar for comfort, and if you can't quite place your finger on why, allow me to help: Justin Masterson. We've been here and done this before. Masterson once looked ready to be Cleveland's ace. Last year, with injuries having taken their toll on his velocity, he was one of the least viable pitchers this organization has seen in recent years. It was batting practice out there.
So why go after Fister? Because Fister is not Masterson, and never was. Fister never averaged even 90 miles per hour on his go-to sinker. Velocity hasn't ever really been a key part of his game, with Fister relying instead on movement, finesse, and control. That last one is big when making the distinction between Masterson and Fister. The former needed zip on his fastball to get opposing batters to guess on what he was going to send their way, because when he through anything else (and, frankly, even when he threw the fastball sometimes), he had no idea where it was going to end up. When you can react to the fastball and just take everything else, Justin Masterson becomes trivially easy to solve.
This is not to say the drop in velocity should be no problem for Fister. Clearly that's not the case since he just pitched to a 96 ERA+ in 2015. It's just that the changes Fister might need to make to accommodate for that drop if, indeed, it's permanent, are likely less dramatic than anything Masterson would have needed to pull off. And, honestly, if Doug Fister is what he was last year? That's...not the worst. That 96 ERA+ is dead even with Wade Miley's figure in 2015. Not great, obviously. In fact, by definition, below average. But the Sox aren't looking for a #2 here, because they're probably not going to get one. A fringe-average #5, however, would be entirely welcome, particularly one that comes with such significant potential to be more.
At what price, though? Well, not much. Yes, yes, Jeff Samardzija got a huge deal coming off a bad year. But the projections for Samardzija were actually decently high to begin with, particularly when combared with the two years and $20 million that Jon Heyman projected Fister to land.
The Red Sox, for what it's worth, should probably not be looking to offer Fister multiple years. They want their lottery ticket, and they want to be able to write it off just like Justin Masterson should Fister fail. So why would Fister choose Boston? Well, as it stands, the only team that currently seems to be talking to him is the Phillies. The Phillies aren't a very good baseball team. The Red Sox project to be one. Fenway Park isn't the best place for a pillow contract for a pitcher, but if Fister wants to compete, the Red Sox can offer him a guaranteed rotation spot to start the season, and a decent payday besides given the team's general willingness to spend on one-year deals.
Frankly, I expect it's unlikely Fister ends up in Boston. In no small part because Dave Dombrowski really seems to want to give Joe Kelly a rotation spot to start the year. There's also some history there between Boston's President of Baseball Operations and Fister, as Dombrowski was the one who traded him to Washington so soon after acquiring him in Detroit. Dombrowski does like his pitchers to throw hard, and there's no question that Kelly has Fister beat in that department.
Still, if the Sox are looking to give their rotation the best chance to succeed, that involves having as many players to throw at any problems that may arise as possible. If a guy like Joe Kelly--or Roenis Elias, or Henry Owens, or Brian Johnson--can reasonably be expected to start the year in Triple-A or the bullpen to make way for a more established arm, well, that's probably the way the Sox should play it.