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 lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.


23 Responses to “Twins Remake Rotation With Nolasco And Hughes”

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  1. nolan says:

    Great article!

    +12 Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. d_i says:

    Echos my thinking. Nolasco probably doesn’t make much difference in 2014 which looks lost before it starts, but will be around long enough to add value when the Twins look to be good again (2015 in my opinion). Hughes, while riskier, should also benefit from having Hicks and Buxton covering A LOT of ground in the OF in years 2-3 of the deal (if not late 2014).

    +5 Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. Gabriel says:

    Nice article. One thing not mentioned is the number of innings Hughes gives you — he’s averaged about 147 over the last four years, almost exactly what he threw last year(in his 29 starts and one relief appearance last year).

    I don’t think it really impacts the points you make, but it does reduce his value some for Minnesota’s purposes in 2014 (in contrast to Nolasco, who gives his teams some pretty reliable innings).

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  4. JMo37 says:

    Great Read

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  5. DINGERS! says:

    Wow that staff is BAD like 4+1 DINGERS! But the young bats can be a core at least. Now about drafting some fireballers..

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  6. Luke in MN says:

    As a Twins fan, I appreciate that they’re making an effort to put something respectable on the field in 2014 and actually spending some dollars on their biggest weakness. If you’re going to get back into contention, it seems to me you need to get to average first.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  7. FMelius says:

    Couldn’t agree more with this article – very fairly put. As a Twins fan, I sure hope Nolasco and Hughes come through with their upside projections, but really – the Twins’ FO approach here is stunninghly defensible no matter what the end result looks like. Thanks, Mike.

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  8. NS says:

    They’re probably going to wish they could un-remake it.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  9. Mike G says:

    As a red sox fan, i am happy with this. Probably means they won’t go after Salty now.

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  10. thechameleon777 says:

    Dear Fangraphs and Mike Petriello,

    Why does Phil Hughes Suck?
    I’ve been trying to calculate why he sucks for a long time.
    Everybody points to his absurd flyball ratios but it’s not that simple.

    He sucks beyond the level that he should ever suck at
    Why does suck so much?

    Phil Hughes defies Saber-metric Stats with a K/9 Rate above 7 and BB/9 Under 4 it’s expected that he would eventually do well based on unluckiness but this is not the case.
    It’s not that he gives up too many fly balls, he gives up too many homeruns, but more importantly he gives up way too many LINE DRIVES.

    League average is about 17-18%

    Phil Hughes is at 20%

    That’s abnormally high.

    You cannot give up that many line drives and expect to do well because your batting average on balls in play or BABIP will absolutely kill you.

    Bottom Line is Phil Hughes sucks.

    If you’d like to hear more like our facebook page at

    https://www.facebook.com/Tradehimaway?ref=hl

    And If you’d like to hear about why line drive rate is important to a pitcher success check out this article
    http://www.cbssports.com/mlb/story/12629434/by-the-numbers-line-drive-rates-tell-quite-a-tale

    Thanks you,
    Nicholas Giannotti
    Founder of Phil Hughes Sucks

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Bip says:

      Dear Mr. Self Promotion,

      The link between pitcher effectiveness and line drive percentage has been explored, and found to be largely non-existent. Every half-baked amateur “analyst” has at one point looked at a pitcher’s line drive rate and claimed to have figured out why that pitcher seemingly underperformed one year. They also have wasted their time in the process.

      Phil Hughes allows an unseemly amount of home runs. Home runs are almost exclusively hit on batted balls that are labeled as fly balls. With an average home run rate, Hughes is a very decent pitcher, but he has not managed anything near an average home run rate recently.

      Thanks for your input,
      Fangraphs reader who you didn’t ask.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Billy says:

        Why? Can you point me in the right direction? I had been assuming that the velocity and trajectory with which a batted ball leaves the bat is enormously important and inducing weak contact is a good thing (even if it’s impact as a sustainable skill is overplayed). My apparently half-baked logic tells me line drives are more likely to go for hits than weak ground balls or fly balls that don’t clear the wall. What is the mitigating factor that makes that insignificant?

        Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Tank Jordan says:

      I agree with you Mr. Giannotti. It is almost as obnoxious to suggest that Phil Hughes doesn’t suck as it is to dislike this guy.

      http://facebookmaja.com/images/stickers/happy-go-lucky/851576_201013953381872_1273966384_n.png

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  11. Dan says:

    Great article! I do have a clarification question though:

    Maybe I’m missing something but would the Twins have to give up their first round pick to sign one of the qualifying-offer free agents? I thought that picks 1-10 were “immune” to the qualifying-offer thing, and it looks like the Twins will be picking 5th overall come June…

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    • Mike Petriello says:

      You are correct — they would not give up their first round pick. They would still lose a pick though, in this case, second round.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  12. Tim says:

    “the Twins had just $26m committed to 2015 before these signings”

    This isn’t correct unless you think Joe Mauer is the only guy on the roster. Cot’s says $45m and that’s just for six players, so with Nolasco and Hughes and filling out the roster they’re looking at around a $75m payroll now.

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  13. Matt gray says:

    Great article, very fair analysis. Hughes and Nolasco are not division changers with the 2014 Twins. I do believe that, the Twins can get into 3rd place with hopes of compete for a wild card in 2015, which in all honest means they have a outside chance of making a run for the divison. Like the 2013 Red Sox, and 2011 Nationals, they need to start building a contender and letting the kids come up with a winning team. Having the right leadership around when they Sano, Buxton, Gibson, and Meyer arrive is essential, I would hate to see them get hurt trying to do too much too soon. The perfect example of a player getting hurt playing for nothing is Ryan Kalish of the 2010 Red Sox, Kalish as not been the same since requiring multiple surgeries to correct the shoulder issue that was a result a diving catch. It’s only when the kids come up and are successful will the Twins have a real chance of winning World Series. Let’s not forget that even dispute the recent spending, payroll as gone as high as 113 million as recently as 2011, demostrating the Twin aren’t reallly shy about spending some money, so the promote and pay only from within Twins maybe something of the past.

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  14. Anon says:

    Was talking about the Nolasco signing with a friend at work. Have to quibble with your statement that he had an “excellent” 2013. ERA+ of 101 i shardly excellent and continues a trend of underwhelming ERAs since his excellent 2008 campaign. As you rightly point out, he now has 1300 IP of showing that he seems to be on the Javy Vazquez trail of consistently underperforming his quite good peripherals.

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  15. Ziggy Stardust says:

    I must disagree with that statement. I don’t remember using ERA to evaluate pitchers for a long time. With a seasonal FIP- of 90, and an average of 93, I have no worries seeing having a moderately effective season. He’s also moving to Target field…

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  16. Ziggy Stardust says:

    Even with regression, he seems to be a league average pitcher.

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