The Twins came to terms with Ricky Nolasco Wednesday night on what is the biggest pitching contract of this offseason so far, agreeing on a four-year, $49 million contract with a vesting option for 2018, which would be Nolasco's age-35 season. That contract is also the largest ever given to a free agent by the Twins, who entered this offseason desperate for starting pitching.
The Twins' rotation was the worst in the majors in 2013 by several measures. It was last by a lot in collective ERA, posting a 5.26 rotation ERA that was 45 points worse than runner-up Toronto, a gap that widens even further when you consider the home ballparks of those respective teams. The Twins were also last in the majors in quality starts (62) and innings pitched by their rotation (871 or 5.4 per game). Nolasco isn't an ace by any league-wide definition, but as a pitcher who over the last six seasons has averaged 192 innings (more than any Twin since Carl Pavano in 2011) and 17 quality starts (tying 2013 Twins leader Kevin Correia's total), he should serve as an anchor of reliability for a Twins rotation that is otherwise adrift.
Of course, the other notable average from Nolasco's last six seasons is a 95 ERA+, meaning he has been a below-average pitcher over that stretch. Indeed, only once in his career has he posted a single-season ERA+ meaningfully above average, when he posted a 124 mark for the Marlins in his age-25 season in 2008. Given that, $49 million over four years plus a vesting option seems like an absurd contract, but it's completely in line with what was expected for Nolasco this winter.
Earlier this month, FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal reported that Nolasco was seeking a five-year contract worth $80 million. That was clearly an opening bid by the player and his agent, Matt Sosnick, but in a market flush with money and thin on reliable and relatively young starting pitching, Nolasco was in good position for a major payday. In response to those reported demands, I wrote that Nolasco would have to lower his asking price by "at least one year and [drop] his total value to something at or below $50 million," which is exactly what happened. I also wrote then that such a contract, combined with the lack of a draft pick attached to his price (players traded in their walk years, as Nolasco was, going from the Marlins to the Dodgers in July, cannot be extended qualifying offers), "should expand his range of suitors beyond the big-spenders hoping to contend in 2014." Again, that's exactly how things played out.
Nolasco's contract echoes the four-year, $52 million deal the rebuilding Cubs gave Edwin Jackson a year ago to serve as a similarly young and reliable anchor in their rotation coming off a six-year average of 193 innings and an exactly league-average ERA+ at the age of 29. Nolasco is a year older than Jackson was then and his $13 million option can vest based on his innings pitched in 2016 and '17. However, given that Jackson was lousy in year one of his deal (79 ERA+ and a major league-leading 18 losses, though he did contribute 175 1/3 innings), and now has a far less-friendly home ballpark, the two deals still seem to have at worst an equal chance of paying off.
The upshot here is that, despite it being a record contract for the franchise, the Nolasco deal isn't going to radically alter the Twins' fortunes any more than did their last record free agent deal, the $21 million, three-year contract given to left-fielder Josh Willingham (a deal which expires after the coming season). The team will still have to wait on the development of prospects Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and pitchers Alex Meyer and Kohl Stewart for that, though three of those four could be established major leaguers by 2015. If the Twins do manage to return to contention during the course of Nolasco's contract, Nolasco himself will be no better than a number-three starter on the next contending Twins team, if that. However, there is considerable value in being able to consume innings comfortably above replacement level, and Nolasco's new contract has affirmed that value as roughly $12-13 million a year.