While it had been noted that the Twins were interested in Ricky Nolasco, it was surprising when they actually opened their pocketbooks wider than ever before to land the righty. Prior to acquiring Nolasco, Josh Willingham had been essentially the only outside multi-year signing of significance in quite some time. Yes, the Twins have given multi-year contracts to players already on their roster fairly frequently over the past decade, but this signing may signal a change in the way the Twins conduct business. Well, to perhaps prove a point they went out and signed Phil Hughes to a three-year pact while I was putting together this piece.
Nolasco will headline a rotation that currently includes Phil Hughes, Kevin Correia, Samuel Deduno, and a battle between Kyle Gibson, Vance Worley, Scott Diamond, Liam Hendriks and Andrew Albers for the fifth spot. It’s still possible the Twins will sign a third pitcher to try and add more stability.
As for Nolasco, who will turn 31 later this month, he is coming of a solid season of once again displaying above average control, matching his career mark in walks allowed (2.1 BB/9) while bouncing back in the swing and misses department with a 7.5 K/9. When going through Nolasco’s velocity and typical pitch selection, there is barely a difference between his 2013 performance and his 2012 (and the rest of his career), which helps to make his 2012 5.9 K/9 fortunately look like an outlier.
In recent seasons, Nolasco has done a better job of keeping the ball on the ground and has been particularly adept at keeping it in the park too, not having posted a 10% or higher HR/FB since 2010. Regardless, Nolasco’s ERA has indeed fluctuated quite a bit over the years with 2013 being the first time he’s posted a sub-4.00 ERA since 2008. That was only the second time the former Marlin has accomplished that feat over his career despite consistently showing superior skills that would suggest he should be producing at a higher level with a consistently sub-4.00 ERA. Perhaps moving to a more competitive environment will help?
For now, Nolasco’s record suggests he is a #2 starter at best and better as an innings-eater number three, yet he will serve in the “ace” role for the Twins, going head to head with the top pitchers in other organizations while having to face the DH on a regular basis. So overall, while I want to say his 2013 level of play is sustainable, especially with better bullpen support than he had in most of his Marlin years, it would be overly optimistic to pay for a sub-4.00 ERA given his history and the changes he will be facing.
Phil Hughes, once considered perhaps the best pitching prospect in all of baseball, found himself a free agent at age 27. The righty had a similar season to 2012 with respect to maintaining a solid K/9 (7.5) while throwing strikes (2.6 BB/9), but once again dealt with long-ball issues (11% of the time) as well as an elevated BABIP of .324. On Hughes' side are his youth, reasonable health and base skills, but that really doesn't tell the whole story. A move to a smaller market/lower scrutiny situation could help, but that’s purely subjective. What Hughes needs to do to produce results that not only make him viable for fantasy purposes, but keep him in the Twins’ rotation, is to reduce the number of long balls. Target Field will aid Hughes a little bit in that respect, but mostly it will be on Hughes and his ability to improve his secondary pitches. He scrapped his curve in favor of a sub-standard slider last year and really has never had much of a changeup. For now, Hughes has not shown any signs of a breakthrough and is more likely to produce a 5-plus ERA than a sub-4.00 ERA in 2014 barring suddenly throwing a fastball with some movement, developing his changeup and/or finding a true out pitch. For now, he slots in as the Twins' number two starter, but Kevin Correia and perhaps in time, Kyle Gibson, should both be ahead of him.
After a very middling season, Dan Haren re-upped with the Nationals for a single season, perhaps in an attempt to rebound and profit it off to a larger degree as a free agent in 2015. From a numbers perspective, Haren was pretty much his usual self, posting an 8+ K/9 and sub 2.0 BB/9. Still, the righty has posted two straight seasons of 4-plus ERAs, including his 2013 4.60 mark, thanks in part to giving up homers at a high rate. Haren has now given up home runs around 13% of the time on fly balls allowed each of the past two seasons. To add to the misery, Haren also posted by far his highest fly ball rate of his career in 2013 at 42% contrasted against his 37% career mark!
A few things may be going on here. First and foremost, Haren has indeed lost velocity over the years. The former Diamondback was around 91 to 92 earlier in his career and decreased to around 90 mph later on, but now has averaged under 89 mph on his fastball each of the last two years. In other words, Haren continues to pound the zone, throwing strikes, but does it with a slower fastball and perhaps not as sharp in-the-zone command, which leads to the long ball.
Haren has now failed to top 200 innings since 2011 and is now 33 years of age. While some improvement on an elevated HR/FB% rate could help lower his ERA a bit, unless he is somehow fully healthy and increases his arm strength, it seems unlikely that he will experience a dramatic rebound and should be treated more as a middle to latter half of the rotation starter for now. Bids in excess of $10 in NL formats probably should be avoided.