It’s a little sooner than I’d like to be discussing offseason decisions, given how much excitement is yet to come in 2013, but the games right now have a decided feeling of simply marking time, and Ricky Nolasco is in the news today, so why not?
This morning, I wrote about his career year over at FanGraphs, and MLB Trade Rumors took a look at his upcoming free agent status. MLBTR suggests that Nolasco is in line for a 3/$36m deal, but to be honest I think that’s underselling it, perhaps by a lot. For example:
since the all-star break, ricky nolasco is 7-0 with a 1.89 era. he’s ranked way 2 low on most free-agent lists. #dodgers
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) September 13, 2013
And while I know better than to rely on wins and ERA, and so do most front offices… those are still some pretty sparkly numbers — especially if Nolasco can toss in a good postseason start or two and earn himself the tag of “October-tested,” or whatever the narrative will be.
The argument against a big deal for Nolasco is simple, and that’s that he’s been somewhat mediocre at preventing runs over his career (4.30 ERA) despite a FIP (3.76) that indicates he should be better at it. Smart teams don’t base decisions on two good months — quiet, Brandon League, nobody asked you! — when there’s years of data saying otherwise.
That’s all fair, but Nolasco has three other things working strongly in his favor even beyond his great run with the Dodgers. First, if I can quote myself, his improvement hasn’t really been a “since he got traded” thing:
That’s not to suggest that he’s merely been lucky, because you might be surprised if you looked at our handy “Last Calendar Year” split to see where he’s ranked among other starters. By WAR, he’s 30th. By ERA, also 30th. By FIP, 21st. By xFIP, again,30th. Over the last year, Nolasco has been one of the top 30 pitchers in baseball, and that dates back to before his time with the Dodgers. He’s simply been a very good pitcher for at least a year now.
As the full article indicates, there’s no shortage of reasons why he’s been doing so well, from changing his release point to increased usage of an improved slider to the happiness that can’t be quantified of going from Miami to Los Angeles, as we’ve seen with Hanley Ramirez. (Though again, Nolasco was doing just fine with the Marlins before the trade, but no one noticed because he was 5-8 with a 3.85 ERA for a team no one cares about.)
Second, the upcoming free agent class for starting pitchers is pretty brutal. There’s no Zack Greinke available this year, or really anything close to it. Among guys who are under 35, the best bets are probably Matt Garza, who has impressed few since being traded to Texas and has a similar “underperforms his skills” reputation as Nolasco does, and Ervin Santana, who has been surprisingly good for Kansas City but also has an inconsistent past. Beyond that, you’re into once-great pitchers with huge question marks like Josh Johnson and Tim Lincecum, and believe me that I wish I could go back to 2010 and put down money in Vegas that Nolasco would get a bigger free agent deal than Lincecum would.
The third thing in Nolasco’s favor is this: since he was traded midseason, he’s not eligible for a qualifying offer. That means that if another team signs him, they won’t have to worry about losing a draft pick, and we saw with Kyle Lohse last season how much the anchor of draft pick compensation can weigh down a good-but-not-great free agent. That helps Garza as well, since Santana almost certainly will have that attached to him.
You can also look back at last year’s pitching contracts — ignoring Greinke, since he’s clearly far more elite than these guys — for some comparisons. Anibal Sanchez signed for 5/$80m with Detroit, bringing with him both a better history of pitching but also a more concerning list of arm injuries than the otherwise reliable Nolasco. Edwin Jackson, slightly less than a year younger than Nolasco but with a long history of inconsistency, received 4/$52m from the Cubs.
With that as a backdrop, it’s hard for me to think that Nolasco is settling for a mere 3/$36m. (Assuming again here that he doesn’t completely implode down the stretch.) If that’s all it took, I’d probably be happy to sign him up right now, because while I do think that there’s some BABIP luck involved here, it’s pretty unfair to look at what he’s done over the last year and assign all of his success to that.
Obviously, the Dodgers have three spots locked up next year with Clayton Kershaw, Greinke, & Hyun-jin Ryu, plus nearly-ready prospects like Zach Lee & Chris Reed coming, plus the return of injured veterans Josh Beckett & Chad Billingsley. But if we’ve learned anything at all this year, there is absolutely no such thing as too much pitching, and there’s no guarantee that Beckett will be effective or that Billingsley will be healthy. I’m more than fine with having four established starters to begin the year and letting the chips fall where they may for the fifth spot and beyond.
My guess is that Nolasco gets that fourth year he’s probably looking for, remaining with the Dodgers for something like 4/$60m, and we’ll all be a bit torn about it, liking what he’s done for his hometown team yet also realizing that holy crap, you just gave sixty million dollars to Ricky Nolasco. Then again, with the new Dodgers, we always have to remember that money only matters insomuch as it prevents you from signing other players, and that never seems to be the case. Either way, Nolasco’s in for quite the interesting winter.