One of the more head-scratching transactions of the offseason saw Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski ship right-hander Doug Fister to Washington for Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol and minor-league lefty Robbie Ray. Fister, 30, went 14-9 with a 3.67 ERA in 33 starts, posting the 12th highest fWAR among starting pitchers -- and fourth highest on Detroit, trailing Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez.
Why Dombrowski was so willing to give up an established starter and a key member of Detroit's starting five for so little remains a mystery, but Fister now finds himself in the pitcher-friendlier National League and in an equally loaded rotation that includes Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. The Nationals' starting rotation was ranked first overall by MLB.com and second by ESPN.com's SweetSpot and Sports on Earth. Fister will slide in comfortably as the fourth starter in Washington just like he did in Detroit.
Fister enters his first year in Washington with a 167.94 ADP, according to the National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC). That makes him the 38th starting pitcher off the board, behind newcomers' Tony Cingrani, Hyun-jin Ryu and Andrew Cashner. Really? The Fake Teams' writers have Fister ranked significantly higher, however, as a borderline top-25 starter. The newest National has thrown 230 innings more than Cingrani, Ryu and Cashner combined to go along with a career 3.53 ERA and 1.21 WHIP (all spent in American League), yet the veteran is hardly being treated as a top-40 starter by the NFBC experts. So what gives?
For one, Fister doesn't possess elite strikeout stuff, which is the biggest argument against him as a No. 2 or No. 3 fantasy starter. Since 2011, he's recorded a 19.3 percent strikeout rate, which is pretty much league average. Last season, Fister's strikeouts-per-nine innings decreased from 7.63 to 6.83, but he had an identical swinging strike rate and improved swing rates across the board. The switch to the NL gives Fister an advantage, at least initially, which should be enough to push his strikeouts back over seven per nine. Over 200 innings, you can expect 150-160 strikeouts, which puts him in the same conversation with teammate Jordan Zimmermann, who struck out a career-best 161 batters in 2013. Despite Zimmermann's so-so strikeout rate, he still finished top 10 among starting pitchers (thanks largely to an NL-leading 19 wins).
Over the past three seasons, Fister's 3.30 ERA is the 20th lowest in baseball, not far behind Felix Hernandez (3.20 ERA) and Matt Cain (3.18 ERA), whom were both considered elite pitchers heading into 2013. His 3.21 FIP over that time is even better (and 14th best in the majors), tied with Chicago's Chris Sale. Back in 2011, Fister posted a 2.83 ERA across 216 1/3 innings for the Mariners and Tigers, proving the ability to post a near-elite ERA. While most projection systems are predicting an ERA between 3.25-3.50, ZiPS is more optimistic with a projected 3.19 ERA. I tend to agree with ZiPs here and think Fister can post an ERA in the low 3s.
Fister's final-season ranking will most likely come down to WHIP. He's bounced around from 1.06 in 2011 to 1.31 in 2013, but last season's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was out of whack (.332 in 2013; .298 in career). That can partially be attributed to a porous Tigers' infield defense, which was one of the worst in baseball. While the Nationals infield defense isn't an elite situation either, it's still a substantial upgrade over the 2013 Tigers. Fister's line drive rate decreased last year, and his groundball rate was fourth best in the league (54.3 percent), so something was definitely off in the final numbers. He won't hurt himself with the free pass (8.2 percent career walk rate), and he hasn't allowed more than 15 home runs in any season since debuting in 2009. Nationals Park rates neutral for power, so that trend should continue.
Stephen Strasburg is the arm you want the most in Washington, but Fister is someone you should target in favor of Zimmermann, who is being drafted as a top-20 starter. I can easily see Fister leapfrogging Zimmermann in the final ranks if the wins fall his way. Regardless, Fister is the best value on Washington's staff, and you shouldn't hesitate to draft him as your No. 3 starter, with the possibility of returning No. 2-like numbers.