Looking to make a big push forward in the American League Central Division, the Minnesota Twins signed two key free agents this past weekend: right-handers Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. What can the Twins expect from this pair? We'll start off with Nolasco today and look at Hughes tomorrow.
Ricky Nolasco was drafted by the Cubs in the fourth round in 2001, out of high school in Rialto, California. He didn't get much immediate attention since he was overshadowed by Cubs first-rounder Mark Prior. However, Nolasco's pro debut was brief but impressive, with a 1.50 ERA and 23/5 K/BB in 18 inning for the Arizona Rookie League Cubs. He threw 90-93 in high school with a strong changeup, but lack of a good breaking ball kept him out of the first three rounds. I gave him a Grade C+ in the 2002 book, which is a good grade for a rookie ball guy without a top draft rating. I wrote that he "could move quickly."
Nolasco pitched for Boise in the Northwest League in 2002, going 7-2, 2.48 with a 92/25 K/BB in 91 innings. He still showed the same fastball and changeup, but his curveball improved and scouts liked his pitching instincts, giving him positive reports. I raised him to Grade B- entering 2003.
After a strong spring training, Nolasco began '03 in the High-A Florida State League, skipping the Low-A level. He was brilliant at Daytona, going 11-5, 2.96 with a 136/48 K/BB in 149 innings, 129 hits alllowed. Scouts continued to praise his pitching instincts and three-pitch arsenal. Impressed with everything I heard and with the numbers, I gave him a Grade B+ entering 2004, ranking him Number 43 on my Top 50 pitching prospects list.
Nolasco began 2004 in Double-A and got off to a fast start. Promoted to Triple-A in May, he was crushed at Iowa, giving up a 9.30 ERA and 68 hits in 41 innings. Scouts said he didn't seem to trust his stuff as much against better hitters. Sent back to Double-A, he was hit hard at times down the stretch, finishing with a 3.70 ERA though also a 115/37 K/BB in 107 innings for West Tennessee.
Although he rebounded after his demotion, his velocity was down towards the end of the season and there was serious concern among Southern League observers that he might not be healthy. I lowered him to Grade C in the '05 book, though in retrospect that was way too low. I should have cut him to B or B-, not all the way to C. I think I was overreacting to the worries about his arm, as well as rumors that his confidence on the mound had taken a huge step backward during his struggles.
Returned to Double-A in 2005, he spent the entire season there, going 14-3, 2.89 with a 173/46 K/BB. I moved him back up to Grade B. Reports were that he'd lost a small tick off his fastball, 89-92 now rather than 90-93. Although he reportedly had his confidence back, his stock with the Cubs seemed down.. In December 2005 he was traded to Florida along with Reynel Pinto and Sergio Mitre in the Juan Pierre deal.
Nolasco spent all of 2006 in the Marlins rotation and performed adequately, going 11-11 with a 4.82 ERA in 140 innings. He lost most of 2007 to injuries but returned in 2008 with an excellent season (15-8, 3.52 ERA, 186/42 K/BB in 212 innings, 124 ERA+, 3.9 WAR). He posted a similar season in '09 (13-9, misleading 5.06 ERA, but a 195/44 K/BB and 4.1 WAR) then settled in as an inning-eater.
Other than 2008, Nolasco's ERAs have been at or slightly below league averages, though his FIPs are better and this is reflected in his fWAR. Overall, Nolasco is 89-75 with a 4.37 ERA in 1312 career innings, with a 1076/306 K/BB ratio, 3.76 FIP, and 20.0 career fWAR.
So is he worth four years and $49 million?
Looking at the historical parallels, through age 30, the Most Similar pitchers to Nolasco via Bill James Sim Score are Pedro Astacio, Joel Pineiro, James Shields, Joe Blanton, Vicente Padilla, Todd Stottlemyre, Gil Meche, Chris Carpenter, Aaron Sele, and Bruce Hurst.
Astacio was above-average at ages 31 and 32, began to fade at 33 and hung around as a below-average veteran arm until age 37. Pineiro was above-average at age 31, collapsed at 32, and was out of the majors at 33. Shields is just one year older than Nolasco so we don't know how his career will go, but of course he was strong last year at 31.
Blanton is just two years older so like Shields the parallel doesn't tell us a lot. He was a below-average inning-eater at 31 and awful at age 32 but I suppose he could rebound. Padilla was solid-average at 31 and 32 but fell apart quickly after that. Stottlemyre was quite good at ages 31, 32, and 33; he ran into durability problems at 34 but remained effective when he was on the mound through 35.
Meche was already hurt at 30 and finished at 31. Carpenter was excellent at 31, got hurt at 32 but worked his way back and had strong seasons at 34, 35, and 36 before going down again. Sele had a good year at age 31 but quickly devolved into a below-average veteran after that, though he managed to hold a roster spot until 37. Hurst was excellent at ages 31, 32, and 33 and didn't begin to fade until age 34.
If the history of similar pitchers is any guide, Nolasco seems like a good bet to be effective in 2014 and 2015 but with an increasing chance of mediocrity after that, which is intuitively logical enough. The best-case outcome would be something like Carpenter, Stottlemyre, or Hurst. Nolasco has already passed the worst-case Meche-like outcome.
Overall, as a Twins fan I don't hate the contract, but I don't love it either.