The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 17, 2014

Thoma column:Twins apply prospect thinking to veteran signings


The Mankato Free Press

---- — The Twins sunk their offseason investments this winter into the starting rotation.

Free agent signees Ricky Nolasco (four years, $49 million), Phil Hughes (three years, $24 million), Mike Pelfrey (two years, $11 million) total some $84 million in financial commitment. Nolasco and Hughes represent the two largest free-agent deals the Twins have ever struck.

And yet the striking thing about these three is: They really haven’t done that much yet.

Nolasco, who figures to be the Opening Day starter, is 89-75 for his eight-year career with a 4.37 ERA. That ERA isn’t impressive on its face; when you factor in that it was compiled in the lighter-hitting National League with good pitchers parks for home environments, it’s even less impressive. Baseball Reference puts Nolasco’s career ERA+ at 6 percent below average.

Hughes, once a top prospect, was deemed a rotation flop with the New York Yankees, who made no effort to retain him. Last year Hughes went 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA; his career ERA+ is 5 percent below average.

Pelfrey ... well, he was part of the problem last year. His stats were Hughes-like: 5-13, 5.19. And his career ERA+ is 10 percent below average.

And these are the guys who are supposed to turn this pitching staff around?

Well, yeah.

Scott Boras is the leading agent in baseball in large part because he’s smarter than most general managers, or at least he was before the new wave of Ivy Leaguers started taking control of front offices. He made a comment during the winter meetings about Terry Ryan as a free agent shopper:

“He’s really taking a very strategic approach to it. He’s making a lot of decisions based on their evaluation of skill and how the players are and thinking the players can be better than they were in Minnesota. I think taking Terry’s skill set as an evaluator and applying it to the free-agent market is a pretty interesting dynamic, and I think he’s going to be successful at it.”

Part of that is probably blowing smoke in Ryan’s direction; at that point Boras was trying to extract some extra money and years for client Pelfrey, who had made it clear he preferred to stay with the Twins.

But there’s some truth to it as well. Ryan may base his optimism on Nolasco and Hughes on traditional eye-ball scouting, but there’s evidence in their statistical record, too, that says they are better pitchers than their bottom-line numbers, such as won-lost records and ERA, indicate. The optimism on Pelfrey is based on his being a year past major surgery; the wager placed is considerably smaller than on the other two.

The Twins aren’t paying Nolasco, Hughes and Pelfrey for what they’ve done in the past. They’re paying on the expectation that each is capable of performing at a higher level than that.

That’s typically a bad bet with free-agent pitchers, but Nolasco and Hughes, in particular, were targeted precisely on that basis.

Boras is right: Applying Ryan’s skill set to free agency is an interesting dynamic. Twins fans can only hope Boras is right about the outcome.

Edward Thoma (344-6377; ethoma@mankatofreepress.com) maintains his Baseball Outsider blog at fpbaseballoutsider.blogspot.com. Follow him on Twitter @bboutsider.