Houston Astros starting pitching was a huge plus in 2015.
Dallas Keuchel continued to be a revelation, posting his best season to date with a 20-8 record, 1.02 WHIP, and 2.48 ERA, earning his first career Cy Young. Behind him was Collin McHugh, a waiver claim turned perfect number two. The 28-year-old won 19 games, threw over 200 innings, and had a 3.89 ERA.
Behind the duo was rookie Lance McCullers Jr, a flamethrower who can dial his changeup to 94 MPH. He showed plenty of potential, pitching to a 9.24 K/9 and a 3.22 ERA in 22 starts, despite only winning six games. All three are 28 and younger, and will be big parts of the Astros rotation next year and beyond.
But not everything went as planned for Houston starters.
Scott Feldman, who was one of Houston’s first rebuild pieces when he signed a three-year, $30 million deal in the 2014 offseason, made only 12 starts after an injury-filled season. Scott Kazmir, the club’s prized playoff push acquisition, struggled badly with the club and bolted to the Dodgers in free agency.
Ultimately, Astros starters finished with the eighth-best ERA (3.71), and the ninth-best FIP (3.80) among starters, but considering the quality at the top of the rotation, there seemed to be room for improvement.
With Houston’s front-end of the rotation being in fine shape, general manager Jeff Luhnow had to address the back-end for Houston to make the jump from playoff team to World Series contender. The Astros didn’t open their wallets to any big free agent starters, but Thursday announced a one-year, $7 million, incentive-laden deal with former Washington Nationals starter Doug Fister – and that’s just the type of signing Houston needed.
Fister is an excellent buy-low candidate for the Astros.
He was in cruise control in 2014, posting a 16-6 record with a 2.41 ERA in 25 starts, finishing eighth in NL Cy Young voting. 2015 didn’t go as planned, as he posted a 5-7 record with a 4.19 ERA in 25 games (15 starts). Fister missed time with a forearm injury and ended up with the worst numbers of his career. The 31-year-old went from being an important starter to a bullpen pawn and personified the Nationals struggles.
It would be silly for Houston to expect to get the best of Fister, as he’s only made 26+ starts once in the last four seasons, but the signing is a small gamble which could pay off handsomely.
Fister is not going to be an ace nor a Cy Young candidate, and pressure should be relaxed as he’ll be a four or a five. If Fister can keep his ERA at 4.19, his career-worst mark posted last year, and make between 20-30 starts, then $7 million is very affordable. Anything more than that is gravy for the Astros. The best case scenario is that the Astros get another quality number two pitcher, and the worst case (barring injury) they get a slightly below average starter.
Behind Keuchel, McHugh, McCullers, and Fister are Feldman and Mike Fiers. Feldman has consistently posted a sub-four ERA over the last three seasons, and if he’s healthy he can make an impact as a perfect number five. Fiers quietly had a solid season split between Milwaukee and Houston, as he ended 2015 with a 7-10 record and a 3.69 ERA. Most impressively, he posted a 9.0 K/9 and a 3.2 BB/9. Houston may have a diamond in the rough with the 30-year-old righty.
On paper, Houston’s rotation was solid, but with the signing it has the potential to very good. The addition of Fister, plus the steady improvements of Keuchel, McHugh, and McCullers, is exciting news for Astros fans. There shouldn’t be any problems with the back-end of the rotation going forward.