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Twins’ free-agent pitchers Nolasco and Hughes are reasonable ‘investments’

REUTERS/Ralph D. Freso
The Twins signed former Marlins and Dodgers right-hander Ricky Nolasco to a four-year, $49 million contract that includes a $13 million team option for 2018.

Three days after signing Ricky Nolasco for $49 million over four years, the Twins added another veteran free-agent starter to the rotation, signing former Yankees right-hander Phil Hughes to a three-year, $24 million deal.

Nolasco and Hughes are now the two largest free-agent investments in Twins history, surpassing the $21 million given to Josh Willingham two winters ago, and along with Kevin Correia, three-fifths of the rotation has been built via multi-year free agent contracts.

Hughes was a first-round draft pick out of high school in 2004 and emerged as an elite prospect, rising to No. 4 on Baseball America’s list for 2007. As a 21-year-old rookie, he started 13 games for the Yankees, after which Hughes was targeted by the Twins in the Johan Santana trade talks. New York hung onto him, and after an injury-wrecked 2008 season, Hughes thrived as a reliever in 2009 before making the All-Star team as a starter in 2010.

Unfortunately he hasn’t been the same since. Hughes posted a 4.90 ERA in 15 starts after the All-Star break that year and from 2011 to 2013 he threw 412 innings with a 4.85 ERA and MLB’s fifth-highest homer rate. Some of that is the result of pitching half his games at Yankee Stadium, which is a terrible home ballpark for an extreme fly-ball pitcher like Hughes.

On the other hand, he also had a 4.34 ERA on the road from 2011 to 2013, and his career ERA away from New York is 4.10. Hughes, like Nolasco, has generally pitched better (or at least less badly) than his ERA suggests, and it’s encouraging to see the Twins target that type of pitcher, rather than someone whose ERA overrates his performance.

However, similar to Delmon Young a few years ago, one-time elite prospect status can overstate a player’s current ceiling, and aside from long-ago scouting reports, there’s little in Hughes’ track record to suggest that he still has significant upside at age 28.

Hughes is young for a free agent and certainly looks durable at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, but he’s topped 175 innings in a season just twice, partly because of nagging injuries and partly because it’s difficult to throw a ton of innings with an ERA nearing 5.00. And while Hughes joins Nolasco in having better secondary numbers than ERAs, unlike Nolasco his secondary numbers still aren’t particularly good.

Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) attempts to remove randomness and luck from a pitcher’s performance, isolating what he can control (strikeouts, walks, ground balls) as opposed to what he can’t control (batting average on balls in play, bullpen strand rate, homers per fly ball). Hughes has a lifetime 4.43 xFIP as a starter, including 4.36 this year and 4.35 in 2012.

He does everything pretty well except limit homers, but that’s an awfully big exception. For his career Hughes has averaged 92.3 miles per hour on his fastball, including 92.4 miles per hour this year, and none of his off-speed pitches have ever consistently been assets. His career strikeout rate as a starter is 7.3 per nine innings, with a single-season high of 7.8. And among the 145 pitchers to log at least 500 innings as starters since Hughes’ debut in 2007, he ranks 140th in ground-ball rate.

If not for the fact that he was once a stud prospect Hughes would likely be viewed as just another mediocre starter, rather than a disappointing bust. Of course, if not for the fact that he was once a stud prospect, Hughes may have had to settle for less than $24 million coming off a year in which he went 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA.

As usual, reality is somewhere in between. He’s a decent pitcher capable of faring better than his recent ERA, but his flaws should keep expectations in check. Fans have been rightfully clamoring for the Twins to actually spend some money after slicing $40 million off the payroll in two years, including leaving approximately $20 million in approved payroll unspent this year. Spending a combined $73 million on Nolasco and Hughes isn’t ideal, but they’re both reasonable investments within the context of rising MLB revenues and current spending.

In other words, this is what it looks like when the Twins finally go swimming in the free agency pool.

* * *

In a move that more than doubles their previous largest investment in an outside free agent, the Twins signed former Marlins and Dodgers right-hander Ricky Nolasco to a four-year, $49 million contract that includes a $13 million team option for 2018.

In breaking down this offseason’s free agent class, I ranked Nolasco atop the middle-of-the-rotation starter category, concluding that his performance has been too inconsistent to consider him a sure-fire top-of-the-rotation starter. His contract fits that description pretty well, comparing similarly to Edwin Jackson‘s four-year, $52 million deal with the Cubs last offseason and Mark Buehrle‘s four-year, $58 million deal with the Marlins two winters ago.

Nolasco immediately becomes the Twins’ best starter, but obviously that isn’t saying much, and in terms of MLB-wide salaries his contract pays him like a good but not great veteran starter.

Nolasco has been very durable through age 30, starting at least 30 games and logging at least 185 innings in five of the past six seasons, including 33 starts and 199 innings this year. His ability to prevent runs unfortunately hasn’t been as impressive, with ERAs of 5.06, 4.51, 4.67, and 4.48 from 2009 to 2012 before a 3.70 mark this year.

However, his secondary numbers have consistently been much better than his lackluster ERAs. For his career Nolasco has a 3.75 xFIP versus a 4.37 ERA, and his xFIP has been better than his ERA in each of the past five seasons, including three seasons of at least a full run better.

All of which suggests that if you give Nolasco a solid defense behind him and some decent luck, he’ll perform better than his 4.37 career ERA, although moving to the AL after spending his entire career in the NL, calling pitcher-friendly ballparks home could complicate things.

Among all MLB starters with 150-plus innings, Nolasco ranked 33rd, 65th and 27th in xFIP during the past three seasons and earlier in his career he cracked the top-20 in back-to-back seasons.

Nolasco doesn’t throw particularly hard, averaging 90.3 miles per hour with his fastball this year, but he also relies on his fastball less than half the time and features a very effective low-80s slider and decent mid-70s curveball. He misses an above-average number of bats, with a strikeout rate of 7.4 per nine innings this year and for his career, although that number has varied significantly from year to year and dipped as low as 5.9 per nine innings in 2012.

Among the 79 pitchers to log at least 400 innings as starters from 2011 to 2013, he ranked 37th in strikeout rate, 13th in walk rate, 47th in ground-ball rate and 32nd in swinging strike rate. Not spectacular, but Nolasco has better raw stuff than a typical strike-throwing pitcher in the Twins’ mold.

Based on ERA, he’s a fourth or fifth starter, and based on secondary numbers, he’s a second or third starter, and the Twins are paying him to perform somewhere in between. Nolasco is hardly a franchise-altering addition, but he’s a massive step up from any recent Twins starter and gives them some semblance of an MLB-caliber rotation that will hopefully also include Alex Meyer at the top and Kyle Gibson in the middle at some point soon.

And while $49 million is a ton of money within the context of the Twins’ previous lack of free-agent spending, it’s more or less the going rate for a pitcher of Nolasco’s caliber.

For a whole lot more about the Nolasco and Hughes signings, plus what it means for the future of the Twins’ starting rotation, check out this week’s “Gleeman and The Geek” episode.

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