If the Twins have a “type” when looking for free-agent pitchers, maybe this is it: Veteran righthanders from Southern California who were drafted in the fourth round, spent their entire careers in the National League and have proved they can stay healthy.
That blueprint attracted them to Kevin Correia a year ago, and Wednesday it compelled them to guarantee at least $49 million, a team record for a free-agent contract, to Ricky Nolasco. That pair immediately assumes the top two spots in the 2014 Twins rotation, though General Manager Terry Ryan intends to acquire another starter or two before the winter is over.
But if Nolasco lives up to his salary as well as Correia did last season, Twins’ pitching will be greatly improved in 2014. Correia wasn’t exactly a staff ace in his first season with the Twins, except in comparison to his fellow starters, but the 4.18 ERA and 185 innings he provided was a reasonable return on his $4.5 million salary, especially on a team where no other starter pitched more than 152 innings. In fact, Fangraphs.com’s value tracker pegs Correia’s 2012 contribution as worth $6.7 million, making him a relative bargain.
Now comes Nolasco, who grew up about 100 miles away from Correia in Rialto, Calif., with a contract that will pay him $12 million in each of the next four seasons. He has been slightly better than league average throughout most of his eight-year career, and while his four-pitch mix, headed by a sharply breaking slider and a fastball that averages 91 miles per hour, doesn’t exactly make him a strikeout pitcher, he will look like one on this staff. Nolasco has averaged 161 whiffs in his past six seasons; no Twins pitcher recorded more than 101 last year.
Nolasco also has excellent control, averaging only 44 walks per year since 2008, a standard that will fit in well with the Twins. His biggest weakness has been a habit of giving up home runs, almost exactly one per nine innings since 2008, but spacious Target Field might help keep those numbers down.
Most of all, the Twins don’t have to wonder whether he is up to a full-season workload. Nolasco, with no recent history of arm problems, has averaged 191 innings over the past six years, and he has made 31 starts five times.
He is coming off one of the best years of his career, with a 3.70 ERA in 2013 and 15 strong starts for the Dodgers during a pennant race after they traded for him from the Marlins on July 6. He turns 31 next month, so the Twins assume some mild risk in this deal. But Fangraphs.com prices the value of Nolasco’s 2013 season at $15.2 million, and he has been worth more than $11 million in five of his past six seasons. In other words, even as the second-highest-paid player on the Twins roster at the moment, Nolasco’s contract has a reasonable chance of being well worth the money, even as a middle-of-the-rotation starter.
Where else might the Twins spend their money? According to ESPN.com’s Jerry Crasnick, citing a baseball source, the Twins “are likely to turn their attention to Phil Hughes.” The New York Post also suggested the Twins are heavily involved in negotiations with the righthander, with the newspaper naming the Angels, Mariners and Royals as also interested in exploring a two-year contract.
Hughes — yes, he’s another Southern California righthander, though a first-round pick unlike fourth-rounders Nolasco and Correia — is coming off a disastrous 4-14, 5.19 ERA season with the Yankees, where his fly-ball tendencies in short-porched Yankee Stadium made him one of the most homer-prone pitchers in the league. But in the four years before that, Hughes averaged 12 wins and a 4.24 ERA, and he is only 27. The Post speculated that Hughes’ bidding might reach $15 million over two years.