Nolasco, Hughes additions point Twins in right direction
Minnesota hopes to recreate pitching staff that was consistently good enough
Brad Radke was never on the cover of Sports Illustrated. His teams in Minnesota never made it to the World Series. But unlike the last three seasons, playing against the Twins in those years was about as much fun as a basement flood.
That's an experience that general manager Terry Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire are committed to recreating. They hope that signing Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes will be a tipping point toward fulfilling that goal, with the belief that the 30-year-old Nolasco can step into the Radke role and that Hughes can grow into a 200-inning starter with his oversized New York expectations no longer hanging over him.
Radke won 20 games once and 148 over his career, but his best season coincided with vintage performances from Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson, and he finished third in voting for the American League Cy Young Award that Clemens took home in 1997. Radke wasn't an All-Star that year, but he did make one appearance at the July showcase the following season.
When Radke reached the Hall of Fame ballot in 2012, he was a one-and-done candidate, named on only two of 573 ballots, and thus dropped from future consideration. But if you want to know what a pitcher like Radke can do for a team, look at the Twins in the first five seasons after Gardenhire replaced Tom Kelly.
Still based at the hitter-friendly Metrodome, the Twins never really beat you with their starting pitching. But with Radke as the leader of mentally-tough staffs, their pitching was consistently good enough to allow teams built around guys like Torii Hunter, A.J. Pierzynski, Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer to win the AL Central four times in five years.
In the years that the Twins went to the playoffs with Radke (2002-04 and '06), the starting rotation ranked sixth, eighth, first (albeit at 4.08) and fifth in the AL in ERA. They were never the second coming of the Greg Maddux-Tom Glavine-John Smoltz Braves, but they could count on getting 200 solid innings from Radke, along with leadership that would help younger pitchers like Johan Santana, Kyle Lohse, Carlos Silva and Francisco Liriano deliver major contributions.
While the rotation was closer to average than great -- a trait that has contributed to Gardenhire's 6-21 record in the postseason -- the starting pitching did not sentence the team to the scrap heap. That's been the case the last three seasons, during which a combined 5.08 ERA from starters has ranked 30th in the Majors.
Try to win with pitching like that. It can't be done.
That's why Ryan made an overhaul of the rotation his priority last winter. He traded two center fielders -- Denard Span and Ben Revere -- for three pitchers: Vance Worley, Trevor May and Alex Meyer. He rolled the dice on Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey, free agents who fit a budget bloated by the combined $38 million going to former MVPs Mauer and Morneau.
Correia, signed to a two-year contract and was solid, but Worley and Pelfrey didn't pan out. The rotation ranked last in the AL with a 5.26 ERA in 2013, and the team went 66-96 for the second consecutive season.
Ryan cleared some payroll by trading Morneau last August, making room to continue attacking the problem. He targeted Nolasco and Hughes early and pursued them aggressively, reaching agreement with Nolasco on a four-year, $49 million deal, and Hughes on a three-year, $24 million deal.
Like Radke, who was an eighth-round Draft pick from Jesuit High in Tampa in 1991, Nolasco is blessed with a sturdy arm and a hard head. He was a fourth-round pick of the Cubs from Rialto (Cal.) High in 2001 and earned Spring Training invitations early in his career, but he worked in the shadows of not only Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano, but also prospects like Angel Guzman and Juan Cruz.
When former Cubs GM Jim Hendry traded Nolasco to the Marlins in a three-pitcher package for Juan Pierre in 2005, he knew he was giving up a future big leaguer. But while Nolasco would make 30-plus starts four times for the Marlins, he was always more a supporting actor, with Josh Beckett, Dontrelle Willis, Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez cast as the leading men.
Never an All-Star, it took the trade to the Dodgers last July for Nolasco to increase his visibility, and he impressed scouts and executives with his performance. He went 8-3 with a 3.52 ERA in the regular season with Los Angeles before getting only one playoff start behind Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu.
Nolasco will join Correia in giving the Twins two reliable parts to construct a rotation around. Hughes is less of a given, as he was inconsistent throughout seven seasons with the Yankees (56-50 and a 4.54 ERA, with a maximum of 191 1/3 innings in one season), but he should get a boost being based at Target Field, not Yankee Stadium.
That leaves two spots open for a group headed by the under-rated Samuel Deduno (8-8 with a 3.83 ERA in 18 starts last year) and lefties Scott Diamond and Andrew Albers, all of whom made at least 10 starts last season. Liam Hendriks and Worley are also in the picture, but the development of first-rounders Kyle Gibson and Meyer figure to play a bigger role in remaking the staff.
Gibson breezed at Triple-A Rochester last season, but he couldn't make that success carry over to Minnesota, causing his return trip to the International League. More may now be expected from Meyer, a 6-foot-9 right-hander who was throwing in the high-90s in the Arizona Fall League.
Who knows what the Twins have in them. The good news is that with Nolasco, they have a starter they can count on, and a nice wild card in Hughes.
One other thing: Nolasco is the first Minnesota starting pitcher to earn more than $10 million per season since 2004, which was the one year that Radke was truly paid like an ace. If Nolasco can be like Radke on the mound, the Twins will have taken their first major step back toward their run atop the AL Central. Other moves must work out too, but Ryan is off to a strong start.