Twins Remake Rotation With Nolasco And Hughes

While most teams took the opportunity to enjoy a quiet Thanksgiving holiday, the Minnesota Twins instead figured the time was right to hand out the two biggest free agent contracts in team history. On Wednesday, they signed Ricky Nolasco for four years and $49 million; on Saturday night, it was Phil Hughes for three years and $24 million. In the span of four days, Terry Ryan added two pitchers who lost 25 games last year to his 96-loss team, and guaranteed them $73 million in the process.

If you think that’s crazy, know that you’re far from alone. Between the dual questions of “is either pitcher really worth that money?” and “why is a 96-loss team spending this much to maybe get to only 90 losses next year?” it’s easy to question the Minnesota plan here. That being said: these are moves that are still pretty defensible.

These Twins are almost certainly not going to contend for the playoffs in 2014, not with an offense that has Joe Mauer as their only real threat. Yes, maybe Brian Dozier isn’t a one-year wonder, maybe Josh Willingham looks more like he did in 2012 than 2013, and maybe Josmil Pinto can stick behind the plate. Even still, it’s a thin roster in a division with three very competitive teams, and we haven’t even made it to the pitching staff yet.

Usually, we frown upon teams like that spending money on mild veteran improvements, because the value of a win that low on the curve is just so minimal. Fourth place is fourth place, whether it’s 90 losses or 93 or 96. But the Twins might just be the team that breaks that rule, because they’re in a very unique position as an organization.

By “unique,” we mean:

1) The Twins have one of the better farm systems in the game, hoping for already-arrived outfielders Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia to show improvement while three excellent prospects — OF Byron Buxton, 3B Miguel Sano, and SP Alex Meyer — are expected to make it within a year or so, and:

2) It’d be difficult to put together a starting rotation as awful as the 2013 Twins group  if you tried.

It’s that first point that drives the plan here, because this may not be a team that’s years and years away from being competitive. It’s not going to happen in 2014, and probably not in 2015 either, but this is at least a team that can sign veterans to multiyear deals and hope that they’re part of the next good Twins team, which not every lousy club can say.

That means that it’s not necessarily too early to start thinking about adding some help to support the farm system and please the fans, and that has to start with the second point: the Twins rotation was unthinkably terrible last year. The rotation was the only one in baseball to have an ERA north of five, and the only one in baseball to have a K/9 mark south of six… and they didn’t even reach five, coming in at 4.93. They’re the first team since the 2003-06 Royals to not even strike out five per nine innings, and when your rotation reminds people of teams that featured Runelvys Hernandez and Mark Redman, that’s generally not a good thing. It’s why jokes about them going after good control/no strikeout/low upside guys like Jeff Francis and Bruce Chen this winter hit too close to home, because that’s exactly the type of pitcher they’ve had for years.

And it actually could have gotten worse, since Mike Pelfrey — who wasn’t great, but not nearly as bad as his 5.19 ERA would suggest — is a free agent who may or may not return. At the start of the offseason, these were the remaining starters the Twins had from last year:

Name
GS
IP
K/9
BB/9
HR/9
ERA
FIP
xFIP
WAR
31
185.1
4.90
2.19
1.17
4.18
4.4
4.24
1.3
18
108
5.58
3.42
0.58
3.83
4.04
4.06
1.1
10
60
3.75
1.05
0.90
4.05
3.96
4.42
0.9
10
51
5.12
3.53
1.24
6.53
5.17
4.77
0
8
36.2
4.66
2.7
1.72
6.87
5.64
5.13
-0.2
24
131
3.57
2.47
1.44
5.43
5.19
4.71
-0.2
10
48.2
4.62
2.77
1.66
7.21
5.53
4.76
-0.2

That is, quite simply, a brutal group, and simply not acceptable for a team not interested in doing an Astros-style tear-down where a season is more or less punted. This Twins team needed at least two starters and arguably three or four, and to be an improvement, they didn’t even need to be great starters; they just needed to fill some innings, because no team in baseball received fewer innings from their rotation last year. In fact, if we exclude the hijinks of the 2012 Rockies, the last team to get fewer innings from a rotation was the 2008 Rangers, who were so torn apart by injury that they had to use 15 different starters.

While we panned or otherwise yawned at the Royals signing another unexciting pitcher in Jason Vargas, because their situation demands upside alongside James Shields in an attempt to compete right away, it actually makes sense for the Twins. They need innings, and they need them both to be respectable in 2014 and to compete beyond that.

So the Twins needed pitchers, and now they have two. Are they the right ones?

Nolasco

Nolasco fits the need perfectly, because while he’s no star, he has gone at least 185 innings in five of his last six seasons. That’s a number that Minnesota starters have hit just once in the last three seasons, and every inning Nolasco throws is one that Albers or Hendriks or someone like them does not.

For years, Nolasco has been known for under-performing his FIP (3.76 career) and xFIP (3.75) with an underwhelming ERA (4.37), and after more than 1,300 major league innings it’s difficult to chalk that up to “bad luck” or to expect it to suddenly change. However, Nolasco’s excellent 2013, which included a 3.70 ERA and a reversal of several years of declining strikeout rates, does come with some tangible evidence of improvement — namely, he changed his pitch selection after watching Zack Greinke in Los Angeles, as this OC Register article goes into detail about, relying less on his fastball. It’s always nice when there’s something you can point to behind changed results.

Though some have pegged this as an “overpay,” it’s not, really; FanGraphs readers guessed 4/$50.4m (nice work!), and Jim Bowden suggested 4/$56m, so this is a deal that makes sense financially. Nolasco doesn’t have the upside that an Ervin Santana or Matt Garza might, but he also brings more consistency than either and likely will come more cheaply than both (and without costing a pick, like Santana will). It’s a  decent market-value signing for a team that badly needed someone reliable, and if the worst you can say is that no rotation should really have Nolasco as their “ace”, well, that’s less about Nolasco than it is about the team he’s joining.

If Nolasco did nothing else but throw 185-200 somewhat better than league-average innings every year, he’d be a worthwhile addition to most staffs. For the Twins, he’s a desperately-needed anchor, one who might still be valuable as the third- or fourth-best starter on a good Minnesota team in two or three years.

Hughes

It’s the Hughes signing that comes as much more of a shock, because his 2013 just looked so, so bad. It’s really the years more than the dollars that stand out, because both FanGraphs readers and Bowden expected in the seven to eight million range, but only for a year or two, not three.

Still, you wonder how much of the negative reaction to Hughes comes because of things that don’t really matter. That is, take a look at the following chart of Hughes’ three seasons in which he made 30 starts or more:

Years
GS
IP
K/9
BB/9
HR/9
BABIP
FIP
xFIP
WAR
2010
31
176.1
7.45
2.96
1.29
.273
4.25
4.13
2.5
2012
32
191.1
7.76
2.16
1.65
.304
4.56
4.35
2.3
2013
30
145.2
7.48
2.59
1.48
.324
4.50
4.39
1.3

Some increasing BABIP and homer problems, to be sure, but otherwise he’s been relatively consistent in terms of strikeouts and walks, and you can see that his FIP and xFIP have been close to stable. If you didn’t know anything about Hughes other than this, you’d think that he’d have ended up with three similarly mediocre years, with 2010 perhaps being slightly better.

But look at how differently those years did turn out. In 2010, he was 18-8 with a 4.19 ERA, landing on the All-Star team. In 2012, he was 16-13 with a 4.23 ERA. In 2013? Disaster, with a 4-14, and 5.19 ERA. We can easily say that he wasn’t as good in 2013 as he was in 2010; we can’t really say that he was so much of a different pitcher that the massive change in those numbers really tell us anything, but while we have moved beyond using wins, losses, and ERA (mostly), much of the baseball world hasn’t, fueling a lot of the negative reaction here.

The bet here for Minnesota is that Hughes might be a bigger “change of scenery” guy than anyone else in the bigs, because a homer-prone flyball pitcher in Yankee Stadium is just about the worst possible scenario. Last year, 17 of his 24 homers came in the Bronx, along with a brutal .388 wOBA against; the Twins are hoping they’re going to see the road version, who allowed a .318 wOBA last year and just .303 over his career.

It’s going to help somewhat, as the 2013 park factors show:

HR as LH
HR as RH
Yankee Stadium
114
106
Target Field
89
97

But this is far from a slam dunk, because Hughes can’t blame his troubles simply on his park and reliance on win/loss record. He does a good job getting ahead of hitters, then has trouble putting them away, as Jason Collette showed last week. He’s become increasingly homer-prone while inducing fewer ground balls, which is a scary combination, and he’s essentially become a two-pitch pitcher, relying heavily on his fastball and slider. You can get away with that when one or both of those pitches are elite; you can’t when the fastball is increasingly getting hit harder, as numbers both here and at Brooks‘ show. Along with the fact that Hughes had difficulty working deep into games last year, that looks like the profile of a reliever, especially when Hughes was excellent in that role back in 2009.

So it’s easy to say that this deal looks a lot more questionable than the Nolasco deal, because there’s so much more risk involved that Hughes is just going to be terrible. But again, the average annual salary makes sense here, because $8m/year really isn’t all that much these days, and so the Twins are making a gamble that getting Hughes out of New York and into a friendlier park can make him merely a reliable league-average pitcher. If it does, then they earn value that exceeds what they’re paying him. If not, he’s an expensive fifth starter (though perhaps still better than what they’d have otherwise) or maybe a reliever. It’s the third guaranteed year that really burns, though Hughes is also heading only into his age-28 season.

That’s the kind of risk the Twins should be taking, anyway, the kind that doesn’t cost them a draft pick or young talent in return. If it blows up, it’s merely money lost, and while the Twins are hardly the Dodgers, a potentially bad 3/$24m deal shouldn’t be enough to torpedo any team. For years, the Pohlad ownership has been criticized for not spending more of their billions on the team, and the Twins had just $26m committed to 2015 before these signings. We can’t criticize both for spending money, and for not.

It’s possible that one or both of these contracts don’t work, of course, but for a team starting out with as little in the rotation as Minnesota did, it’s a sensible strategy. If you don’t want to spend on Santana & Garza, understand that Dan Haren wanted to go to California, and weren’t interested in Vargas’ brand of slop, then there’s only so much out there. Nolasco and Hughes are imperfect pitchers, but they’re each improvements on what the Twins had, and represent a reasonable bet to return the value on their contracts.



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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.


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