Who are you guys and what have you done with the Minnesota Twins? I was on this same boat of skepticism and just hoping against all hope that the team at least signed an average pitcher to help the team out. But the Twins are shopping and every fan should be on a buyer’s high from now until Spring Training. First it was Ricky Nolasco’s 4 year/$49 million deal and now with the agreement to sign Phil Hughes to a 3 year/$24 million deal, the Twins once again topped their previously richest free agent signing (Josh Willingham’s 3 year/$21 million deal in 2011). In just four days, Terry Ryan and the Twins committed $73 million to two starting pitchers, broken down to $20 million for 2014. The team desperately needed to bring on starting pitching and much to our surprise, Ryan pulled it off in a big way.
On Thursday, Terry Ryan was the not-so-proud recipient of Patrick Reusse’s 2013 Turkey of the Year award. Hammered for being slow to react to changes in how baseball teams build winning clubs, Ryan’s frugal spending essentially won him the award. However, you have to wonder if the breaking news of Nolasco’s signing a day before forced Reusse to quickly edit his story, taking a little edge off of Ryan’s reluctance to spend free agency money. Who knows? What we do know is that you can no longer argue that the Twins’ are cheap after picking up Hughes in addition to Nolasco. If the Mike Pelfrey and Vance Worley deals worked out better than they did, Ryan looks like a genius and doesn’t slump his way into Turkey of the Year. But now that he has spent the money to bring in legitimate big league pitchers, the onus is no longer on Ryan for a terrible pitching season.
The contract numbers for the two new Twins are strongly representative of the two pitchers. Nolasco is by no means flashy, but his longer and richer contract is indicative of his dependability and solid numbers for the last seven year. Barring injury, his signing essentially guarantees a vast improvement for the Twins starting rotation. Phil Hughes is a different story though and thus his smaller contract. His 2013 numbers are straight up ugly to look at (4-14 record with a 5.19 ERA) and his career numbers are unspectacular (56-50 with a 4.54 ERA). After breaking into the MLB in 2007, Hughes is considered a career underachiever after spending much of his minor league career being touted as the next big Yankee ace. In one sense he looks like a too highly paid reclamation project but Hughes has the potential to severely outperform his contract.
Consider that Hughes has spent his entire career playing for the New York Yankees, pitching under the media spotlight of the MLB’s richest team in terms of both money and history. Burdened by the hype of promised stardom, with New York’s rabid fan base dissecting every pitch he made, it’s not surprising that Hughes didn’t live up to his potential. This is mostly speculation but the stats actually back this up. In 2013, Hughes had a 6.32 ERA in his 17 games at home, allowed 17 homeruns and suffered an opposing batter’s stat line of .317/.355/.554 (Avg./OBP/SLG). In his 13 games away from Yankee Stadium, he posted a 3.88 ERA, gave up just 7 HRs and allowed a .262/.321/.414 batting line.
Those home/away splits are very hard to ignore when you try and evaluate his future performance for the Twins. With its foul poles being only 318 and 314 feet away from home plate, Yankee Stadium is one of the most hitter friendly parks in the majors. Combine this with Hughes’ fly ball tendencies and you have a recipe for disaster. According to ESPNs Park Factors, Yankee Stadium had a 1.128 Homerun factor in 2013 (favoring the hitter) while Target field had a .802 factor (favoring the pitchers), with a 1.000 rating favoring neither the hitter nor the pitcher. As long as the Twins outfield isn’t too slow with possibly Josh Willingham and Oswaldo Arcia manning the corners, balls that used to reach the seats in Yankee Stadium should fall into gloves more often at Target Field. Minnesota Twins fans should also provide a much better, less hostile work environment since it appears that pitching in Yankee Stadium did more to Hughes ability than just increase his HR rate. Hughes’ move also gives him a chance to escape the extremely competitive AL East, who he had to pitch against 12 out of 30 times in 2013.
Hughes may not provide anymore “flash” than Ricky Nolasco, but the combination of their signings means that Twins are serious about trying to improve and have already taken steps to fix their biggest area of need. It’s only December 1st and instead of waiting for the scraps of free agency like previous years to “solidify” their rotation, the Twins energized their fans by signing two big names to actually improve their rotation. Who else is already feeling excited for 2014?