Astros feel they're 'built to go the distance'

January 29th, 2016

HOUSTON -- In the end, the Astros did almost everything they could have hoped to do this offseason. So what do you think, Jeff Luhnow?

"This team is built to go the distance this year," the Astros' general manager said Thursday.

Well, all righty.

Luhnow had just announced the signing of free-agent right-hander Doug Fister, 31, to a one-year deal that includes a $7 million base salary and incentives worth as much as $5 million.

Fister excited to join Astros on 1-year deal

Luhnow believes that Fister, healthy again, is still capable of being the pitcher he has been for a large chunk of his Major League career. In the four seasons before 2015, he averaged 188 innings and had a 3.11 ERA.

In those four years, Fister showed the ability to get lots of soft contact, keep hitters off balance and pitch deep into games. At this time last year, he figured to be one of the top free-agent pitchers on the market.

Unfortunately, Fister's 2015 season with the Washington Nationals came undone. He strained a muscle in his right arm early in the season and was forced onto the disabled list in May for five weeks.

When Fister returned, his mechanics were a mess, and he was shipped to the bullpen in early August. He eventually got straightened out and finished with six straight scoreless relief appearances.

But there was enough uncertainty surrounding Fister that he wasn't a hot commodity in free agency.

Enter the Astros.

They gave Fister a thorough physical and are convinced that his arm is sound. They're also convinced that he will make a club already favored to win the American League West even better.

"He fits our team in a lot of ways," Luhnow said. "We've got a chance to provide an environment that allows him to succeed and get back to his 2014 form. He provides leadership for a pretty young group of players.

"We feel good about the person that we're getting as well as the pitcher that we're getting. There were other options out there, and we feel good about this being the piece that makes the Astros the strongest for 2016."

Fister's sinker/cutter combination produces a high ground-ball rate when it's working and is perfect for a very good defensive club. In that way, Fister is similar to his new teammate, 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel.

Fister puts a nice finishing touch on an offseason that has worked out nicely for the Astros. In trading for closer Ken Giles and re-signing left-hander Tony Sipp, Luhnow believes he has upgraded a bullpen that was one of baseball's best for the first five months of last season.

Luhnow had hoped to add starting-pitching depth and has monitored the market for several weeks. With the team's payroll inching toward $100 million, he wasn't going to go for a big-ticket free agent. Luhnow is extremely happy about the guy he got, and so is Fister.

"We've got a great opportunity here," Fister said. "We've got a great club here, and our ceiling is as high as we want it to be. To have a young team that's energized and ready to play, that's where we want to take this."

At least at the beginning of Spring Training, Houston will have six starters competing for five spots: Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Lance McCullers, Mike Fiers, Scott Feldman and Fister. If that sounds like a problem, it's a happy one.

"At full strength, we've got some options," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "Last year, we used 13 starting pitchers. I think the average was around 11. We're going to need every one of them."

Houston had the AL's second-best rotation last season in terms of ERA (3.71). Only Tampa Bay (3.63) was better.

"If you think about our team last year, one of the reasons we made the playoffs is we have a very successful starting rotation," Luhnow said. "It's my belief that a championship-caliber team improves even upon its strengths, not just its weaknesses. That's what we're doing. Doug is one of the top right-handed pitchers in the game. He adds to an already strong pitching staff."

Just a year ago, no one knew what to expect of the Astros, who averaged 104 losses the previous four seasons. In a magical six-month ride, they went 86-76, thanks in part to Keuchel, AL Rookie of the Year Award winner Carlos Correa and a long list of others.

They played spectacularly entertaining defense, they hit home runs, and until the last few weeks, they protected leads. It ended with a Game 5 AL Division Series loss to the Royals and whetted the appetite for more.

"Things change when you have success," Hinch said. "It raises your standard. We have to embrace it because it's our reality. It doesn't get us anywhere in 2016 if it don't do our preparation. We want that to be the standard here."