Well, it seems as though the dominoes may start falling in the free agent pitcher market, with Ricky Nolasco having just signed with the Minnesota Twins. According to Jeff Passan on Twitter:
Ricky Nolasco's deal with Twins is four years, $49M guaranteed with a 2018 option. Gets $12M a year in 2014-17 with $1M buyout on option.There have been rumours the Blue Jays were also talking to the right-handed innings eater, who has been the very model of consistency over his career. I wrote about him back in my free agent pitching piece, saying:
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) November 28, 2013
Over his career he's pitched to a 4.37 ERA, but a much better 3.76 FIP. By ERA- he's been 8% worse than league average for his career. By FIP- he's been 8% better. Regardless of how you feel about FIP, that's odd, and it does make me concerned that whatever it is that sees him posting such mediocre ERAs despite such solid peripherals would be exacerbated by a move to the AL East with its elite offenses and band box stadiums.I mean, if there was anything to the rumours and there were any kind of serious talks going on there perhaps this is a bit of a blow to their off-season plans, but I would hope their sights are set a bit higher than Nolasco at the moment. Whether they were actually after him or not, there might be a glimmer of hope in the Nolasco signing, as at the time I wrote that piece, the word was that he was seeking a contract worth somewhere in the neighbourhood of $80 million. Obviously that was never realistic, but it also didn't sound quite as crazy as it probably should have. Everyone expects this off-season to be a little bit silly, so that he signed for something not far off the Edwin Jackson-style four-year $52 million MLB Trade Rumors projected him for is almost comforting.
Nolasco signed for a little less guaranteed money than Edwin Jackson, who was also younger when he signed his current deal, but Nolasco has a $13 million player option for a fifth year that vests based on innings pitched in 2016-17. It's a lot of money and term for a dependably mediocre pitcher who will be on the wrong side of 30 for the entirety of the contract, but the fact that he was traded mid-season means he wasn't attached to draft pick compensation, and that certainly has a value that might be worth paying a little extra for. It basically pays him to be about a two win pitcher, which he has been by FanGraphs' FIP-based WAR, but not by Baseball-Reference's RA9-based version. Your favourite flavour of pitcher WAR will colour your view of this contract significantly, but either way Nolasco is likely to decline over the course of it.
The point is, it wasn't something completely insane, and given the salary explosion many seem to be predicting this off-season, maybe that can be considered a small victory. It's too early to say that Nolasco's contract will set the market, but maybe it gives a bit of hope that absurd salary inflation won't make wading into free agency any more difficult for the Blue Jays than it already will be. In fact, it's possible that the structure of Nolasco's contract might provide a model for the Blue Jays to look to.
It seems the market is open to some interestingly structured contracts this off-season, as Dan Haren signed an incentive and vesting option-based deal with the Dodgers this week. The Blue Jays will no doubt be hesitant to offer five year deals to any pitcher, given the inherent risk of injury. A vesting player option like Nolasco's might be a way to mitigate the risk, as he at least has to be reasonably healthy for it to vest. It might also be possible to back-load a free agent deal for the sake of the payroll in the short term, until a ton of money comes off the books after 2015. I'm open to some creativity, and I think a bit of it might be necessary for them to help themselves in free agency.
So yes, this deal seems a rich one for a pitcher like Nolasco, but it's probably right about the going rate, and the option year isn't terribly scary to me due to the fact that he has to remain healthy for it to vest. Basically, I wouldn't have been surprised if it was a lot worse, and it's a model I wouldn't be scared to see the Blue Jays offer to some other free agents out there. Frankly, that's more hope than I was expecting to get when the big name free agent pitcher shoes started dropping.
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