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.

November 13, 2013

Free agent pitching options: Middle-of-the-rotation starters

Dating back to the 2011 season Twins starting pitchers have posted a combined 5.08 ERA for the worst mark in baseball and the only other rotation with an ERA above 4.80 during that three-year span plays half its games at Coors Field. In those three seasons Twins starters ranked 26th, 29th, and 30th in ERA. They also ranked 28th, 30th, and 30th in strikeout rate, including a pathetic 4.9 strikeouts per nine innings this year while no other team was below 6.0.

To figure out their options for addressing the dreadful rotation via free agency I've grouped the available arms into three categories: Top-of-the-rotation starters, middle-of-the-rotation starters, and back-of-the-rotation starters. Below are the middle-of-the-rotation starters, which I view as a No. 3 or No. 4 starter on a contending team, which means an average-or-better starter without the same type of upside as the front-line guys.

Miami Marlins Photo DayRicky Nolasco - RHP - 199 innings - 3.70 ERA - 3.58 xFIP - 165/46 K/BB

Nolasco was a No. 2 starter early in his career and pitched like one again this year, but from 2009-2012 he threw 740 innings with a 4.68 ERA despite calling a pitcher-friendly ballpark home. His secondary numbers were always much better than his ERAs during that time and it wouldn't be a huge stretch to include him in the top-of-the-rotation group, but he lacks the big-time velocity or strikeout rates to totally convince me he's better than a really good mid-rotation guy.

Cleveland Indians Photo DayScott Kazmir - LHP - 158 innings - 4.04 ERA - 3.36 xFIP - 162/47 K/BB

Kazmir was a dominant young starter with the Rays and then rapidly deteriorated to the point that he posted a 5.34 ERA in independent ball at age 28. He made an incredible comeback with the Indians, racking up strikeouts at the same rate that made him a star in the first place, and finished strong with a 43/4 K/BB ratio in September. Kazmir is a huge risk, but he's still just 29 and looked an awful lot like his old self this year. Based purely on upside, he's easily the best of this bunch.

Cincinnati Reds Photo DayBronson Arroyo - RHP - 202 innings - 3.79 ERA - 3.97 xFIP - 124/34 K/BB

Arroyo's average fastball has never cracked 90 miles per hour, but he's logged 200 innings per season for a decade thanks to a wide variety of off-speed pitches and good control. He also gives up a ton of homers, leading the league in two of the past three years, and at age 37 he's had to become an extreme strike-thrower to make up for diminished strikeout rates. Arroyo is a prototypical Twins pitcher in the good and bad ways, and it'd be shocking if they weren't targeting him.

Atlanta Braves Photo DayPaul Maholm - LHP - 153 innings - 4.41 ERA - 3.89 xFIP - 105/47 K/BB

Maholm was headed for his third straight season with a sub-4.00 ERA when arm problems tripped him up. He had a 6.00 ERA after July 1 and also spent a month on the disabled list during that time, but no serious injuries were found. At age 32 with a high-80s fastball he lacks upside, but Maholm has generally been a solid mid-rotation starter with average strikeout rates, acceptable control, and lots of ground balls. He's one of the few quality left-handers in a righty-heavy class.

2013 New York Yankees Photo DayPhil Hughes - RHP - 146 innings - 5.19 ERA - 4.39 xFIP - 121/42 K/BB

Considered baseball's best pitching prospect when the Twins tried to get him in the Johan Santana trade, Hughes is now 27 years old with a 4.54 career ERA. As an extreme fly-ball pitcher getting away from Yankee Stadium would help Hughes a lot, but it's also possible he's just mediocre. He had a 4.34 ERA on the road from 2011-2013, and his velocity and strikeout rates are good rather than great. He's better than his ERAs suggest, but the potential ace simply never developed.

2013 Oakland Athletics Photo DayBartolo Colon - RHP - 190 innings - 2.65 ERA - 3.95 xFIP - 117/29 K/BB

A flame-throwing top-of-the-rotation starter for a decade, Colon was wrecked by injuries after robbing Johan Santana of the Cy Young award in 2005. Out of MLB in 2010, he came back at age 38 as a strike-throwing machine and has a 3.32 ERA in 507 innings since. Now he's 40 and coming off a 2.65 ERA for the A's, but his secondary numbers are far less impressive. No longer a strikeout guy, he pumps low-90s fastballs for strikes and relies on good defense behind him.

2013 Philadelphia Phillies Photo DayRoy Halladay - RHP - 62 innings - 6.82 ERA - 5.10 xFIP - 51/36 K/BB

Halladay is one of this generation's best pitchers and a likely Hall of Famer, but it's tough to say if he has anything left in the tank at age 37. He was wobbly at times in 2012 and the wheels fell off this year, as he got battered for a 6.82 ERA in 13 starts and averaged just 88 miles per hour with his fastball. It was hard to watch Halladay pitch in his diminished state, but if healthy he certainly has the control and smarts to extend his career as a mid-rotation starter.

Los Angeles Dodgers Photo DayChris Capuano - LHP - 106 innings - 4.26 ERA - 3.67 xFIP - 81/24 K/BB

Los Angeles' rotation depth and a groin injury limited Capuano to 20 starts this year, but he posted a 3.91 ERA and 52/10 K/BB ratio in 13 starts after June 1. He also tossed 198 innings with a 3.72 ERA in 2012 and has always managed above-average strikeout rates to go with being impossible to run on, so even at age 35 he looks far from washed up. There's no upside to be found, but he's a perfectly capable mid-rotation guy who likely won't require a multi-year commitment.

2013 Chicago Cubs Photo DayScott Feldman - RHP - 182 innings - 3.86 ERA - 3.96 xFIP - 132/56 K/BB

Placed in the back-of-the-rotation starter group last offseason because he hadn't topped 150 innings in three years, Feldman signed a one-year, $6 million deal and threw 182 innings with a 3.86 ERA. Not much about his underlying performance actually changed, he just stayed healthy and got away from Texas' hitter-friendly ballpark. He gets an average number of strikeouts with average control and was a ground-ball pitcher for the first time this year, although that may not stick.

2013 Tampa Bay Rays Photo DayRoberto Hernandez - RHP - 151 innings - 4.89 ERA - 3.60 xFIP - 113/38 K/BB

On one hand the Rays not being able to fix a pitcher makes me think he may not be fixable. On the other hand Hernandez's secondary stats improved dramatically, as he issued just 38 walks in 151 innings after years of awful control and managed a decent number of strikeouts while maintaining a strong ground-ball rate. He's not the same pitcher he was back when his name was Fausto Carmona, but there's still reason to be intrigued if the price is right.


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