Roll of the dice: Twins sign Nolasco, Hughes

Well, they did something. They spent some money.

The Twins signed RHP Ricky Nolasco to a 4-year, $49 million deal that qualifies as the most expensive free-agent signing in team history, then a couple days later, signed RHP Phil Hughes to a 3-year, $24 million deal that qualifies as the second most expensive free-agent signing in team history.

There are several angles to these signings, but a couple things.

1. I’ve never felt like the Twins problem was a refusal to spend money, at least, not since they moved into Target Field. Handing out bad contracts just because fans demand payroll be at a certain threshold is bad business. The Twins stink, and for the last couple years, there weren’t any free-agent deals that were going to change that. Spending money for the sake of spending money is dumb, and there are enough bad contracts out there (the Yankees gave the latest one to Jacoby Ellsbury last night) to make anyone think twice about breaking the bank (enjoy paying an already-breaking down Albert Pujols $212 million over the next eight years, Angels).
The Twins are still going to stink this year, most likely, but when they saw a couple pitchers they liked, they spent the money.
So if nothing else, fans who keep whining about the Pohlads not spending money will hopefully pipe down for awhile.

2. Don’t get caught up in the cost.
Yes, the contracts are, as mentioned, the most expensive in team history. That says more about the Twins than it does about Nolasco and Hughes. If you’re expecting either of them to become the ‘true ace’ that fans keep nattering on about just because they’re the most expensive free-agents in team history, you’re almost certainly going to be disappointed.
The Twins are spending $8 million per year for Hughes and $12 million per year for Nolasco. That doesn’t buy you a Cy Young candidate. It buys you a 3rd starter.

Nolasco is coming off a very solid season, posting a 3.70 ERA in 33 starts between the Marlins and Dodgers.
He’s durable, having thrown over 185 innings in five of the last six seasons. He has excellent control, but unlike other Twins strike-throwers, he’s not a ‘pitch-to-contact’ control specialist. His career strikeout rate is a very respectable 7.4/9 innings.
He’s also traditionally graded out very well in peripheral numbers, as his xFIP has always been much lower than his ERA.
xFIP — expected fielding independent pitching — measures what a pitcher’s ERA should be if you factor out defense, bullpen and luck.
Nolasco’s career ERA is 4.37, his career xFIP is 3.75. But the Twins haven’t been a great defensive team in recent years, so that might just mean Nolasco is in line for a 4.70 ERA when he deserves a 4.10.
On a scarier note, Vance Worley had nice numbers in the National League, too. Solid strikeout rates, a good ERA, and relatively decent stuff. He won one game last year.
I still haven’t given up on Worley — unless he just forgot how to pitch there’s no way he can be as bad as he was last year — but his difficulty making the adjustment to the AL is at least a little worrisome in bringing another NL pitcher over.
On the other hand, Kevin Correia actually pitched slightly better last year in his first AL season than he did in his last years in the NL.

Hughes is only 27, and is actually something close to an honest-to-God power pitcher.
Of course, being a ‘power pitcher’ doesn’t automatically make you a good pitcher, and Hughes has gotten knocked around quite a bit over the last few years. His $8 million yearly salary was not earned based on his previous performance, it’s based on the Twins hoping something close to the future ace he was projected to be as a youngster is still in there somewhere.
On the one hand, the Hughes signing probably has more potential upside than the Nolasco deal, but on the other, it also feels like it has a higher chance of falling flat.
Hughes got hit hard last year, going 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA, two years after going 5-5 with a 5.79 ERA. In between, he had a decent year in 2012, going 16-13 with a 4.23 ERA, and his best year was 2010, when, at age 24, he was 18-8 with a 4.19 ERA.
Like Nolasco he has a solid K rate (7.6/9), and his control is solid as well (2.8 BB/9). He’s also been extremely home run prone, giving up 59 gopher balls in 61 starts the last two seasons.
Unlike Nolasco, his xFIP (4.43) isn’t significantly better than his actual ERA (4.54).

The Twins are obviously banking on the fact that a change of scenery will help, and it almost certainly will to at least some degree. Hughes is an extreme flyball pitcher, which is a terrible fit for Yankee Stadium but potentially workable at Target Field. And it’s also possible he just didn’t take well to being ‘The Next Big Thing’ in New York. Remember, this was the guy Brian Cashman refused to trade for Johan Santana.
Maybe relaxed expectations in Minnesota will bring out a better pitcher. Hughes wouldn’t be the first pitcher to thrive in Minnesota after washing out in New York (see Pavano, Carl).

It doesn’t seem like there’s a ton of upside to either of these deals. If Nolasco can give them 200 innings of 4.00, he’d be coming pretty close to earning that $12 million per. Obviously the Twins are hoping for better than that, but they also better be aware that it wouldn’t be a big shock to see the guy put up an ERA in the 4.50 range, if not worse, every year of the contract. Same goes for Hughes.

That said, both of these guys have enough of a track record that it’s probably safe to assume neither will do what Worley did last year. Both should provide innings. Both are upgrades over what they had. And now, suddenly, the Twins have some actual depth, to where they aren’t going to get stuck throwing PJ Walters or Cole DeVries or Pedro Hernandez out there for 7-8 starts just because there’s no one else.

Just last year, Vance Worley and Scott Diamond were this team’s 1-2 starters, and fans actually felt like that was an upgrade from the previous year. Now neither of those guys are even guaranteed a spot in the rotation.
Nolasco, Correia and Hughes will be the 1-2-3, and they should at least be competent. There’s still a chance they re-sign Mike Pelfrey (I wouldn’t, but he was better than his 5.19 ERA last year would suggest), and the Twins are still apparently in on Bronson Arroyo, who would basically be another Correia.
That would leave Diamond (12 wins, 3.54 ERA in 2012), Worley (3.50 ERA in 46 starts with the Phillies), Andrew Albers (who opened his ML career with back-to-back shutouts), Sam Deduno (who was a very solid 8-8 with a 3.83 ERA in 18 starts last year), Kyle Gibson (remember him?), Anthony Swarzak (2.91 ERA in 96 relief innings last year) and, potentially, prospects Alex Meyer and Trevor May, to compete for one spot.
Someone out of that group is probably going to figure it out.

It won’t get the Twins into contention, but it should make them better. And if some of their young hitting prospects start to develop quickly, the Twins could, in a couple years, have a solid rotation to go with in Nolasco, Hughes, Gibson, Meyer and May/Worley/Deduno.

If nothing else, it’s nice to see the Twins spend some money, and even nicer to see them take a risk. Because that’s what both of these signings are — risks.

When you’re in a small market and you’ve lost 100 games three years in a row, you’re not going to just go out and reel in Clayton Kershaw.
You’ve got to roll the dice and hope you get lucky. The Twins didn’t likely hit the jackpot with Nolasco or Hughes, but they made their team better.