Santa Came Early for Twins Fans

Yes, Santa Clause showed up early for Twins fans this year – and he brought presents.

Terry Ryan’s reputation among Twins fans has historically been more Ebeneezer Scrooge than Santa Clause over the years. Whether he’s been visited by apparitions who have shown him the errors of his ways or merely by an owner who has grown weary of being blamed by fans for being miserly, Ryan has been doing his holiday shopping early this year and he’s delivered a couple of early gifts to Twins fans.

Terry Ryan (Photo Jim Crikket/Knuckleballs)

Terry Ryan (Photo Jim Crikket/Knuckleballs)

More than a week before the traditional baseball flea market that is the sport’s Winter Meetings, Ryan has signed two of the more in-demand starting pitchers on the market in Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes.

Nolasco and Hughes are not “aces,” so of course there’s a certain faction of Twins fans that are not happy with the additions. Some of those fans remind me of kids who, despite finding some cool presents under the tree on Christmas morning, simply pout because they didn’t get the pony they asked Santa for.

There’s absolutely no downside to these additions and plenty to like about them.

First, the obvious: Nothing short of an injury should keep both of these two pitchers from outperforming the 2013 levels of every starting pitcher who toed the rubber in a Twins uniform this past season.

Neither pitcher will cost the Twins a draft choice next June. Nolasco’s mid-season trade to the Dodgers was a blessing for the pitcher and the Twins.

Some have questioned the Twins for giving arguably generous multi-year deals to the two arms. That thinking simply doesn’t take in to account the Twins’ situation. There are teams who rightfully are interested only in signing free agent pitchers to one or two year deals. The Twins are not one of those teams.

Whether or not it was by design, the Twins have an enormous amount of “payroll flexability.” That’s shorthand for, “they have cut payroll to an obscenely low level, so there is literally nobody on the market they can’t afford.”

Almost everyone believes the Twins have no shot at being competitive for the postseason in 2014. (I don’t necessarily agree, but that’s a discussion for another day.) The consensus thinking is that the Twins have hitters either on the roster now or likely to arrive by 2015 or 2016 that will be good enough to score runs. There’s much less confidence concerning the pitching situation.

So, the Twins need veteran starting pitchers that have a likelihood of being at least legitimate middle-of-the-rotation pitchers, not just in 2014, but for a number of seasons beyond that. That is exactly what Nolasco and Hughes are.

Are they sure-things? No. Are they potential aces? Nope, not likely at all. A week ago, the pitcher most likely to become a true ace in a Twins uniform was prospect Alex Meyer. That remains true today.

But here’s something that wasn’t true a week ago: Before the Nolasco and Hughes signings, the agents for next off-season’s top-tier free agents did not see the Twins as players in the free agent market for their clients’ services. Now, as long as the Twins show some notable improvement this season, you can bet they’ll take a call from Terry Ryan next November and they’ll listen closely to what Ryan has to say.

In that way, the Twins demonstrating a willingness to pay what some might argue is above market value for good free agent talent could work in their favor down the road.

In fact, the Twins may not have to wait until next year for this benefit to kick in. Media reports are that the team is still actively looking to add another starting pitcher, as well as a veteran starting catcher. I’d be willing to bet there are players on the market (and their agents) much more interested in talking to the Twins today than they were a week ago.

Terry Ryan has made a statement. The Twins are intent on improving right now, not at some indefinite time in the future. And it’s a statement being made with actions – and money- not words.

I’m certain that current members of the Twins are excited to see indications the club is committed to winning more games in 2014. I am, too.

You could say these are the sorts of moves Ryan should have been making last year or even the year before that. You’d be absolutely right. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t appreciate that it’s happening now.

Christmas came early for Twins fans this year. Enjoy it. You’re not going to get the pony – this year. But what you’re getting is a lot better than the chunks of coal Santa left in your stockings last year!

– JC

4 thoughts on “Santa Came Early for Twins Fans

  1. “First, the obvious:”

    To say that is not obvious is to understate the case. Phil Hughes pitched 145 innings in 29 starts last year with a 5.19 ERA. Kevin Correa pitched 185 innings in 31 starts with a 4.18 ERA. His ERA the previous year was also worse than Correa’s.

    “There are teams who rightfully are interested only in signing free agent pitchers to one or two year deals. The Twins are not one of those teams.”

    I think you hit the nail on the head here. The Twins picked up a couple guys who other teams saw as too high risk for multi-year contracts. Nolasco has consistently had a lot of innings. But until last year, he also gave up a lot of runs while getting those outs. Hughes not lived up to his potential since his 2010 “breakout” season.

    These are slightly higher class versions of last year’s signings of Correa and Pelfrey. Like those two, they give the Twins some proven pitchers in the rotation. With three guys they can plan on, if not count on, they can give their young pitchers a chance to develop. If Deduno continues to pitch well, there is really only one rotation slot left for guys like GIbson, Diamond and Worley. No one is going to win a spot by default.

  2. “First, the obvious: Nothing short of an injury should keep both of these two pitchers from outperforming the 2013 levels of every starting pitcher who toed the rubber in a Twins uniform this past season.”

    I don’t think this is clearly obvious.

    Nolasco actually would be a decent mid-rotation pitcher if his ERA with the Twins can approach his career FIP/xFIP levels (which is why I really don’t mind his signing). The trouble with Nolasco is that he consistently under-performs his peripherals. In fact, he has a 94 ERA+ for his career; pitching at that level would place him (among Twins starters who made 10+ starts in 2013) beneath the performances by Deduno, Albers, and Correia this year.

    Hughes had a 5.19 ERA this year, 4.85 ERA over the last 3 years; in 2 of the last 3 years, his rWAR has been below replacement-level. He has a 95 ERA+ for his career (that includes a good 2009 season when the Yanks used him mostly out of the bullpen); his career ERA as a starter is 4.74. If the “change of scene” helps him match his xFIP levels the last few years, he’ll bring us an ERA in the 4.50s–which just makes him a back-end starter on any decent staff. It would be one thing to take a one-year flyer on him; why are they committing $24M over three years to him?
    ——
    “There are teams who rightfully are interested only in signing free agent pitchers to one or two year deals. The Twins are not one of those teams.”

    Why not? There’s a lot of advantages to a rebuilding team in signing bargains with a high upside to one-year deals.
    ——
    “Whether or not it was by design, the Twins have an enormous amount of ‘payroll flexability.’ That’s shorthand for, ‘they have cut payroll to an obscenely low level, so there is literally nobody on the market they can’t afford.'”

    In that case, I hope they’ll be so aggressive in signing some genuine top talent. It would be really disappointing if they wasted all that flexibility and deep resources on likely back-end pitchers and an old catcher who will be blocking Pinto, who will be 25 next year and looks like he can play.

    Why shouldn’t fans demand the pony, anyway? It’s not that I need to get the pony to be happy (I’m used to not getting top free agents), but, you know, Nolasco is kind of like getting socks, maybe a sweater that could grow on you after awhile, and Hughes is like some knock-off gadget, “almost as good as the real thing,” that’s probably going to crap out before long. And signing A.J. would be like getting the tool that you don’t really need. It’s nice that Santa thought of us, and, sure, we can use some socks or a sweater. But, sorry, I’m not jumping for joy after opening these packages, either. It’s not enough to hear, “But we really spent more than usual on this junk.” If I can’t get the pony, or something fun, at least I want some QUALITY. Still waiting.

  3. One year ago, Ubaldo Jimenez was coming off a 9-17 season (career high in losses) and a 5.40 ERA. Ervin Santana was 9-13 with a 5.16 ERA the same year. You’d have been hard pressed to find a Twins fan who wouldn’t have dogged the Twins mercilessly if they had added either pitcher last off-season. This year, those two guys are considered among the top tier of starting pitchers on the market. You think Cleveland and KC wouldn’t love to have the two of them locked up for a couple more years right now?

    People bitch about the Twins “selling low and buying high” on players. They would almost certainly be “buying high” if they went out and signed JImenez, Santana and even Garza or Tanaka this year.

    Nolasco didn’t break the bank and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if his performance over the term of his contract with the Twins exceeds that of whoever gets stuck paying more money for Jimenez and Santana, certainly, and most likely Garza and Tanaka, as well. Hughes had a bad 2013 (just as Santana had in 2012), but one year earlier, he won 16 games and threw to a 4.23 ERA in that Yankee Stadium band box, totaling 0ver 190 innings of work.

    If you want high-upside value, you don’t pay premium dollars for guys who are coming off their BEST years as they hit free agency, you identify guys who you think might be positioned to perform BETTER than they did in their walk year.

    If Nolasco and Hughes stay healthy, I think Twins fans will be really glad they’re both going to be returning in 2015-2016. And with the relatively affordable contracts, the Twins will still have enough payroll room to add even more (and perhaps better) pitching help next off-season when adding a true impact player could vault them in to legitimate contention.