December 3, 2013

Twins sign Phil Hughes to three-year, $24 million contract

phil hughes yankees

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 2011-2013 he threw 412 innings with a 4.85 ERA and MLB's fifth-highest homer rate. Some of that is due to 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 2011-2013 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.


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.

  • Andy

    I respectfully disagree on this one. I think Hughes has a fair amount of upside once taken out of the bandbox in New York. I think he’ll benefit from pitching in Target Field, where (in admittedly few innings) he’s got great numbers and from pitching more games against non-AL East opponents. I’m not expecting Cy Young awards or anything like that, but I do think Hughes has a chance to out-earn the investment the Twins have made here.

  • Falcon Punch

    The fact that Nolasco and Hughes instantly become their #1 and #2 starters is embarrassing. These guys actually make them better (shaking my head). Also, the FA market for league average starters is out of control. I guess the upside is that it’s just money…the Twins don’t lose any picks and I am sure we can spin one of them off for prospects in July if they can keep it together. Best case scenario for this team in 2014 is somehow managing to stay around .500 but I think another 90 loss year is more realistic which is fine. Bringing up Sano in June should put butts in the seats.

  • Josh

    I like the Hughes signing quite a bit, and I think he’s actually got a better chance of bringing back a better ROI than Nolasco. Pitching for the Yankees just hasn’t been good for him and the move to a smaller market and a ballpark that plays bigger should help him out quite a bit. (He’s given up twice as many HRs at home as the road over his career)

    I’m also wondering if a changing in coaching, clubhouse, and fanbase will also improve his prospects. It seems pretty clear that the Yankees and their fans saw him as an underachiever and were basically giving up on him. He’s only 27, so there’s still a chance a new coaching staff can help him develop his secondary pitches. (Calling Bobby Cueller, your skills in teaching the change up are required!)

    I was a little surprised they got Hughes at this price and for these years. While I thought the dollars were about right, I thought he would go looking for a 1 year deal for a bounceback and a bigger deal, maybe 2 years at most to prove it. But 3 years is perfect for the Twins who need a bridge starter with some upside who can help hold things together until Meyer/May/etc are ready to go and hold down the back of the rotation when they are ready.

  • Drew

    Good signings, and it’s nice to see the Twins spend some of the money they’ve been sitting on while watching the ship go down. I don’t think anyone is expecting them to be aces even if they might be in that Starter 1 and Starter 2 role. The thing that worries me with Hughes is that he’s a guy with history of health issues, and I don’t have a great deal of confidence in the Twins training staff to be able to properly handle a player that might be slightly more injury prone (even with just limited absences).

  • D-Luxxx

    I’m just happy to see them attempting to dive into the free agent market without the intent of picking up reclamation projects and washed up veterans past their prime. Both of these guys are fairly young, and the deals aren’t terrible considering the market.
    Would I have liked to see them sign Garza? Yes. Are my expectations lowered by the last few year’s failure? Probably. Am I excited for next season? Always!

    • frightwig

      Make no mistake, Phil Hughes is a reclamation project. And the Twins
      are betting on the front end that it will work out, which is why nobody
      really likes the deal outside of Twins fans invested in hope that next
      year won’t suck so hard.

      Note that Hughes’ xFIP numbers (in last 3 years: 4.39, 4.35, 4.90) put him generally in the same classas Kevin Correia (xFIP in last 3 years: 4.24, 4.34, 4,38), whose 10/2 deal last year drove Aaron and pretty much everyone else crazy. So this year Terry Ryan throws an even bigger deal at the same quality of pitcher, and just about all the Twins fans go digging for reasons to love it. (His K/9 is decent! The swing & miss rate on his fastball looks encouraging! His road ERA this year wasn’t completely terrible!) The more resigned defense goes, “well, at least he’s better than anyone in the rotation last year,” which just isn’t true. But I guess people really, really want to believe.

      At least Aaron hasn’t turned into a total bobo for this deal, unlike some of the guys at other blogs. Much appreciated, Aaron.

      • D-Luxxx

        I will agree that Hughes is a reclamation project of a sort, but I don’t see any similarities between Hughes and Correia besides their xFIP. That’s called using numbers in a vacuum and assuming that because the numbers match up, that they
        must be right.

        Let’s look at some differences just from the top of my head:

        Correia never pitched in the AL prior to coming to the Twins, and you typically see pitchers get worse when making that jump. Getting to face a pitcher 2-3 times a game will deflate your numbers over the season. Hughes pitched in the AL East
        for his whole career. That means he was facing Boston, Toronto, Tampa Bay and to a lesser extent Baltimore more than any other team. This alone would inflate any pitchers numbers. Add to that his extreme fly-ball tendencies and playing in the band box that is Yankee Stadium III. Tell me again how Correia and Hughes are the same pitcher because they have a similar xFIP. Add to that FB velocity, K/9 and most importantly age and I think you CAN find a reason to be cautiously optimistic about Hughes. Or, you can make a broad generalization using one stat. Your call…

  • Sean

    It is misguided to compare Kevin Correia and Phil Hughes, regardless of what their xFIPS look like. Hughes has much better stuff. What these signings do tell me, along those lines, is that the Twins are finally starting to look beyond the surface numbers, grabbing two guys that outperformed their xFIPS from last year and going after guys that were probably somewhat discounted because of their ERAs.

    Advanced stats are tricky because the mental part of baseball means that things like reduced performance from the stretch (when runners are on base) are not going to be captured by xFIP but are real problems pitchers face. And in that case the ERA would actually be more accurate. Still, with a lower xFIP and a solid k rate, the talent is there, and then it’s in the coaches hands to harness it.

    That said, the mental aspect of the game couldn’t get much worse for Hughes, who was clearly not a good fit in New York, either in terms of his talent profile or his personality. He is still young enough where he could really blossom here. He has the talent to do it, and even if it was 3 years ago, he has an ace-caliber season in his background. And yes he has had some injuries, but at 27 it’s a good bet he’s still got the talent to get those numbers back. It’s hard to put a lot of trust in Gardy and Anderson to bring out the best in a pitcher, but that’s really all you can ask for as a fan.

  • spoofbonser

    I like this move a lot, mostly in the sense that there is some intrigue beyond AA prospects. I’ve really tired of watching games and wind up just listening on the radio, which makes for a more productive spoofbonser, but I would rather waste time watching “good” baseball. I hope they don’t sign Pelfrey or somone similar and I don’t want to see any position prospects traded, but would love to see them bring in Garza. They can afford him. In two years, if they have too many SP and need to trade one, how nice would that be?

  • LibertyFargo

    Honestly… I’m more worried about Rick Anderson than I am about the actual pitchers the Twins will have in rotation this Spring.