Doug Fister's Return Will Be Boost Needed to Fill Bryce Harper's Loss

Joe GiglioContributor IMay 7, 2014

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Washington Nationals starter Doug Fister has been the center of hypothetical scenarios and questions since he arrived in an offseason trade with the Detroit Tigers.

From sky-high expectations for Washington's staff to doubt surrounding the Tigers' decision to trade away such a valuable piece, the 30-year-old righty is now a central figure in another hot topic surrounding his current team: how to fill the loss of superstar outfielder Bryce Harper.

Although Fister's bat won't be able to put a dent in the production lost when Harper hit the disabled list with a thumb injury, his right arm can limit enough runs to give the Nationals a major boost. On Friday against the Oakland Athletics, Fister is set to make his debut with Washington. The former Mariners and Tigers starter missed all of April with a lat muscle strain. 

Heading into play on May 7, Fister's new team sat at 18-15 and fresh off a loss to Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers. While a .545 winning percentage is far from dominant, the Nationals have to be pleased with that record after losing Harper, Fister, catcher Wilson Ramos, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and center fielder Denard Span to injuries over the first six weeks of the season.

Now, the team—specifically the starting rotation—can begin the process of becoming whole. Until Harper returns, a dominant 25-man roster likely won't emerge. However, Fister can be the missing piece in a starting rotation that can carry Washington.

Despite the losses of key offensive players, the Nationals entered play on May 6 with excellent rankings across the NL, including fourth in runs scored and third in OPS, per Baseball-Reference. Led by Jayson Werth (.394 OBP), Anthony Rendon (.873 OPS) and Adam LaRoche (.519 SLG), there's enough to back an excellent rotation. 

Buoyed by the trio of Stephen Strasburg (13.1 SO/9), Jordan Zimmermann (2.92 ERA) and Gio Gonzalez (2.74 fielding independent pitching), the Nationals have the blueprint for consistent excellence from starting pitchers. Yet, in order to be a team that can reel off long, sustained winning streaks and rise to the top of the division, one more arm is needed to round out a superb staff.

Enter Fister.

While it's easy to just slot in Fister as a No. 4 starter—resembling his place behind Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez in the 2013 Tigers rotation—that distinction would be selling short a pitcher who has easily been one of the best and most valuable arms in baseball since the start of the 2011 season. 

The following chart shows where Fister ranked in seven key categories among starters with at least 450 IP—ERA, ERA+, CG, FIP, SO/BB, WAR and GB%—from 2011-2013. As you can see, a deceptive 35-32 win-loss record overshadowed the work Fister did for the Tigers.

Underrated Excellence: Fister's MLB Ranks (2011-2013)
StatFisterMLB Rank

To put those numbers in perspective, consider the following facts: Fister owned a lower ERA than Zack Greinke, better adjusted ERA than Cole Hamels and superior FIP to that of Matt Cain. Three of baseball's most recent $100 million arms pitched less effectively than the Nationals newest starter.

Of course, for the Nationals to thrive, Fister has to be healthy and effective. After completing a rehab assignment in preparation for his debut, Fister said he's ready to take the mound, per James Wagner of The Washington Post:

I do feel like I’m ready. Physically, I’m to the point where I can go out there and throw [up] to 100 pitches and have the stamina to continue. It’s a matter of now I need to fine-tune enough to go out there and command the baseball. That’s gonna come with time. I feel like I’m ready to go out and attack it.

For the Nationals, the fine-tuning of Fister's arsenal is imperative as he joins his rotation mates in an effort to overtake the suddenly competitive and deep NL East.

Last year, only the Braves and Nationals won at least 81 games. Heading into play on May 7, the top (Atlanta) and bottom (Philadelphia) of the division was separated by only two losses. If teams like the Marlins, Mets and Phillies continue to hang around .500, pressure will be on Washington to stay afloat until Harper's return.

The 162-game regular season in baseball is a war of attrition. Roster depth is always tested and teams that overcome long-term injury issues are usually in the race when August and September arrives.

When Fister takes the hill in Oakland, the Nationals could finally boast the best starting pitching quartet in the entire sport. With a surprisingly good offense holding its own without Harper and Zimmerman, don't be surprised if a Fister-led winning streak commences in the near future.

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Statistics are from Baseball-Reference.comESPN and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Roster breakdowns via