The Miami Marlins think that they are close to contention next year, and that is certainly a questionable statement. The Fish have many injured parts this year, and some of those players are not to be counted on for major wins in 2016. The statuses of Jose Fernandez, Henderson Alvarez, and Giancarlo Stanton are always in question, and the Fish do not know what they will get out of the rest of their young core. Still, Miami think they are just a few innings-eating pitchers close to playoff status.
One player the Marlins might consider is free agent-to-be pitcher Doug Fister, who is currently struggling mightily in his final year in Washington. MLB.com's Joe Frisaro points out that Fister is a great bounce back candidate.
Fister owns a 4.56 ERA and 4.74 FIP and is 31 years old, so it is certainly possible that things are just no longer going his way. He seems to be a long time separated from the five-win campaign he put up years ago in Seattle and Detroit. Still, Frisaro has a good point in that Fister is exactly the sort of player the Marlins should consider spending money on.
The last few seasons, the Marlins have attempted to take on as little risk as possible in their free agents despite the fact that they still spent only small amounts of money. Some of those signings were good ones that turned out poorly (Jarrod Saltalamacchia), but many were just poor signings that were guaranteed to not go anywhere. The Marlins had to know there was very little upside in signing guys like Garrett Jones, Jeff Baker, and Michael Morse, who were known commodities coming on the relative cheap. None of those guys was going to surprisingly spring the Fish a three-win season out of nowhere.
Fister would be a different story. Much like Javier Vazquez in 2011, Fister is also coming off of an awful season, one which also involves an odd decrease in velocity. Fister's fastball is down about 1.5 mph from his baseline numbers from last year, and that could be a direct cause for the sudden concerns this year. After putting up around a league average year last season, Fister's 2015 campaign has been marred by an uptick in home runs (14 in just under 95 innings pitched), a downturn in ground ball rate, and an increase in hard-hit balls.
In a reasonable number of pitchers, that could very well spell the end of a career that was always on the border to begin with. However, if you are the Marlins and are in need of a starting pitcher, going after a guy who was a season removed from an average campaign at least promises some upside. Fister is not a few years into a disastrous career downturn like Jones or a constant disappointment like Morse. He is not some career backup or bullpen guy being signed to fill a marginal hole like Baker. He has put up a five-win season once and at least three average or better campaigns in the last four years before this one. At 31 years old, there is still some potential upside.
The Marlins have rarely made this type of move, especially in free agency. But when they last did it with Vazquez, it worked out very nicely for them. After some early struggles, Vazquez figured out a problem with his mechanics that led to him regaining his velocity. He then put up a three-win season for the then-Florida Marlins before retiring for good. Vazquez was 365 at the time, not even in the relative youth of Fister's age at the moment.
The Fish did try the same stunt this year, instead via the trade market. The club sent two smaller assets in Anthony DeSclafani and Chad Wallach for a year of Mat Latos in an attempt to explore whether Latos could regain his fastball. It turns out he could and he spent about a month pitching very well, but that came after several rough starts and another DL stint with his knee. By that point, it was too late to garner significant value and the Marlins traded Latos away for nothing.
This may be the biggest deterrent for the Marlins signing a buy-low upside candidate. But Fister would be an interesting choice even if the Marlins were not close to a playoff spot. Regardless of whether the Fish are ready to compete, the team could be a useful springboard for a bounce back campaign and lead to a midseason trade if and when the Marlins are out of contention. If Fister is putting up a three-win campaign again, the Marlins could flip him and his likely affordable deal for prospects to help bolster depth in an empty farm system. If he falters, the club would likely only be committing to a one-year contract, so it would not be devastating to have to eat that salary.
A successful signing of a player like Fister with upside represents a lot of potential value for Miami even without the playoffs in sight. Miami can offer Fister a safe home with a park that helps cover up any brewing home run problems while providing him a strong defensive front for the first time in ages. That formula could lead to a great ERA for half a season before the Marlins probably fall out of contention, but the signing could be a way for Miami to trade money in for prospects. Ultimately, the team needs to rebuild more depth in its roster, and upside signings like these can help to contribute depth. A Fister signing may not be the difference between September and October baseball, but it could be one piece that helps Miami find October in the next three years.