January 29, 2014

Twins Notes: Nolasco vs. Garza, Suzuki vs. Pinto, Buxton vs. The World

matt garza twins

• In moving quickly to sign Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes early in the offseason the Twins seemingly signaled two things: One is that they really liked Nolasco and Hughes, believing they both represented good value within the context of this offseason's free agent starters. Beyond that, it also suggested that they felt the consensus top-tier starters from the class weren't worth parting with a draft pick to sign or would end up being out of their price range. Or both.

And yet two months after signing Nolasco to a four-year, $49 million contract the Twins watched as Matt Garza--considered by most people to be a more desirable free agent target--signed with the Brewers for a nearly identical four-year, $50 million deal. Garza, like Nolasco, didn't require forfeiting a draft pick to sign and at age 30 he's a year younger. But who's actually the better pitcher? Here are their numbers from the past three seasons:

           GS     IP     ERA    SO/9    BB/9    OAVG     GB%    xFIP     MPH
Garza      73    457    3.62     8.4     2.7    .245    43.8    3.46    93.5
Nolasco    97    596    4.29     6.6     2.1    .279    44.9    3.76    90.1

Garza missed some time with arm problems in 2012 and 2013, so Nolasco has a large innings edge from 2011-2013, but in terms of actually preventing runs Garza was much better. During that three-year span Garza posted a 3.62 ERA, compared to 4.29 for Nolasco, and within that he struck out 27 percent more batters while holding opponents to a batting average 34 points lower in less pitcher-friendly environments. His fastball velocity was also 3.4 miles per hour higher.

However, a lot of Nolasco's somewhat bloated ERA during that time stems from a .314 batting average on balls in play, which was the second-highest among all 84 pitchers to throw at least 400 innings from 2011-2013. By comparison Garza had a .293 batting average on balls in play during that same time, which was right in the middle of the pack. If you assume that the defense behind Nolasco was mostly to blame for all those extra hits falling in the two pitchers look much closer.

Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) attempts to remove luck from the mix by focusing on the factors a pitcher can control and Garza had a 3.46 xFIP from 2011-2013, compared to 3.76 for Nolasco. In other words Garza was still clearly better than Nolasco during the past three years, but it wasn't as large of a gap as their ERAs suggested and the gap shrinks even further once you account for durability. With that said, for the same price tag I'd rather have Garza than Nolasco.

• When the Twins signed Kurt Suzuki to a one-year, $2.75 million deal I noted that the biggest worry was Ron Gardenhire falling in love with the veteran and choosing to play him far more often than his performance warrants. Turns out it may not even take Gardenhire falling in love with Suzuki for that to happen, as Terry Ryan has already gone from hinting that Suzuki rather than Josmil Pinto will be the starting catcher to basically saying Suzuki has the job locked up.

Pinto may prove incapable of being a decent defensive catcher, but his offensive upside is sizable and at age 25 there's a chance that he could develop into a good all-around catcher. Meanwhile, in the past three seasons Suzuki hit .235/.290/.353 while throwing out just 25 percent of stolen base attempts and rating very poorly in pitch-framing analysis. Suzuki hasn't been a starting-caliber catcher since 2009 and the Twins are likely to be mediocre at best, so why not let Pinto play?

• This week MLB.com, Baseball Prospectus, and ESPN.com all published their annual top 100 prospect rankings and Byron Buxton holds the top spot on each list. Buxton will also soon be named the No. 1 prospect by Baseball America when their list comes out. My annual series ranking and profiling the Twins' top 40 prospects kicks off next week, covering five prospects each day in countdown form.

This week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode was recorded live in front of a 300-person crowd at Twins Daily's inaugural "Winter Meltdown" event, with special guests Twins president Dave St. Peter, former Cy Young runner-up Scott Erickson, and Miguel Sano documentary filmmaker Jon Paley. Come for St. Peter getting laughs at my expense and stay for Erickson telling dirty stories.

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 28, 2013

Twins sign Ricky Nolasco to four-year, $49 million contract

ricky nolasco marlins

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 2009-2012 before a 3.70 mark this year. However, his secondary numbers have consistently been much better than his lackluster ERAs.

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). 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 2011-2013 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, 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 and they still have plenty of money to spend.


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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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July 19, 2010

Life after Cliff Lee

All the Cliff Lee trade speculation went for naught, as the Twins reportedly balked at making Aaron Hicks part of a package for the impending free agent and the Mariners ended up with several offers beyond what the Twins should have been willing to give up for him anyway. At the last moment the Mariners pulled out of a nearly agreed-upon deal with the Yankees for a package headlined by Jesus Montero to accept a Justin Smoak-led offer from the Rangers.

Prior to the season Baseball America ranked Hicks as the No. 19 prospect in baseball, but the same list had Smoak at No. 13 and Montero at No. 4. At midseason Baseball America published a rankings update that had Montero at No. 5 and Hicks at No. 9, with Smoak no longer eligible for "prospect" status after playing regularly in the majors. I'm sure plenty of people view Hicks as a better prospect than Montero or Smoak, but in general he's not seen at quite that level.

New York's offer reportedly included Montero and two or three other mid-level prospects, while Texas' package for Lee included Smoak, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke, and Matthew Lawson. In terms of trying to match those offers up to the Twins' farm system, it would likely be something along the lines of Hicks plus David Bromberg, Alex Burnett, and Luke Hughes. Or perhaps, as was rumored at one point, Hicks plus Wilson Ramos. Either way, far too much for my liking.

Now that Lee is off the table Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com speculates that Cubs lefty Ted Lilly would be a "logical target" for the Twins. Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune went even further, listing the Twins and Mets as the front-runners for Lilly. It passes the smell test, as the Cubs are clearly sellers, Lilly has long been a solid mid-rotation starter, and as an impending free agent he'd be much easier to acquire from a payroll standpoint than, say, Roy Oswalt.

In fact, recent reports suggest that no teams are even willing to absorb the remaining money on Oswalt's contract, let alone do that and give up prospects. Lilly is owed about $5 million for the rest of the season, which the Cubs may be willing to cover in the right deal. On the other hand, because he projects as a Type A free agent the Cubs could just let Lilly walk and collect a pair of compensatory draft picks, so any trade offered would likely need to beat that value.

Lilly has a 3.76 ERA, .235 opponents' batting average, and 584-to-180 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 693 innings since signing a four-year, $40 million deal with the Cubs, including a 4.07 ERA, .236 opponents' batting average, and 75-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 104 innings this year. He has a 4.22 xFIP during that four-year span, which would basically put him neck and neck with Scott Baker as the Twins' third-best starter behind Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano.

Among the starters rumored to be available Dan Haren strikes me as the most intriguing. He's one of the youngest of the bunch at 29 years old and has generally been underrated, with his value perhaps at a low point because of a bad-looking 4.60 ERA through 20 starts this season. His secondary numbers are far better, with a 133-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 135 innings, and he's had a sub-4.00 xFIP in six straight years to go with a 3.72 ERA in 207 career starts.

Haren is one of the top dozen or so starters in baseball despite remaining fairly anonymous in Arizona and he's also signed through 2013 at about $13 million a year, so if the Diamondbacks are looking to sell low on him the Twins should be willing to pounce. However, it doesn't sound like that's necessarily the case, with reports that they're smartly asking for a lot in return, and it's tough to imagine the Twins giving up top prospects and absorbing that much salary.

Ricky Nolasco is another interesting name rumored to be available thanks to his 4.90 ERA in 50 starts since going 15-8 with a 3.52 ERA in 2008. His secondary numbers are significantly better than his ERA, with a 3.73 xFIP this season and a 3.85 xFIP for his career, and Nolasco is even younger than Haren while still being arbitration eligible next season. If you look past the recent ERAs he's a 27-year-old mid-rotation starter who misses bats and throws strikes.

I've gotten e-mails and comments asking about Fausto Carmona since the Indians are clearly sellers and he was their representative in the All-Star game. Carmona has seemingly bounced back from a horrendous 2009 with a 3.65 ERA in 19 starts, but a 64-to-49 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 123 innings suggests not that much has changed. He has electric raw stuff and induces tons of ground balls, but Carmona remains a big question mark because of shaky command.

Oakland will likely make Ben Sheets available, because he's signed to a one-year, $10 million deal and the A's are struggling just to stay around .500. Sheets got off to a terrible start after missing last year following elbow surgery, but has a 3.72 ERA and 66-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his last 82 innings. Similarly the Astros will likely look to deal Brett Myers, although his one-year, $3.1 million contract also includes an $8 million mutual option for next season.

Myers has a 3.35 ERA and 93-to-39 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 129 innings this year and an xFIP of 3.91 in over 1,300 career innings.  While not really a fly-ball pitcher he struggles at times to keep the ball in the ballpark, serving up an average of 31 homers per 200 innings during eight seasons with the Phillies. Myers has kept the long balls in check so far this season and Target Field would help mask any homer-related issues with the Twins.

Guys like Kevin Millwood, Jake Westbrook, and Jeremy Guthrie are also said to be available, but aside from making a change just for the sake of making a change none represent any kind of real upgrade over Baker or Kevin Slowey (and nearly anyone represents an upgrade over Nick Blackburn at this point). Sticking with in-house options is a much better idea than giving up value to scrape the bottom of the veteran barrel.

Haren and Oswalt are legit No. 1 starters, Lilly, Nolasco, and Myers are all strong mid-rotation starters, Sheets is a riskier mid-rotation option, and after that it dries up in a hurry. Between those six starters there are definitely opportunities for the Twins to upgrade the rotation, but with Baker and Blackburn both signed to long-term deals and Slowey still 26 years old with a career 4.53 ERA despite recent struggles the situation is a lot trickier than just picking a name.