Meet: Phil Hughes

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Jesse's analysis Minnesota's signing of Phil Hughes.

For the second time in four days, the Minnesota Twins have committed to dishing out a multi-year contract to a free agent pitcher. While the three-year, $24 million dollar prize for Phil Hughes doesn't match Ricky Nolasco's four-year, $49 million dollar offer, it nevertheless tops Josh Willingham's former franchise record for a free agent contract. So you could also say that, for the second time in four days, the Twins' front office has spent more on two individual transactions than they've ever spent before on the open market.

They've also committed to $73 million dollars in payroll. For two players. Whose team is this, anyway?

All joking aside, the big question in regards to Phil Hughes is: why three years? MLB Trade Rumors, which runs a fantastic series looking at free agents to determine their market, hit on the $8 million dollar average annual value but clearly fell short on the years. This was a common sentiment, with people believing that Hughes could snag a two-year offer from somewhere at most.

The first issue to tackle is the market, in that it's not always what we expect it to be. In Hughes' case it's certainly not an overpay in terms of dollars, but is it an overpay in terms of years? Maybe not. Markets have only so much predictability, so much stability. If people really knew how markets worked - what would happen when a certain set of variables fell into place - then we'd all be rich. As it is, the market for Hughes wasn't, apparently, what we expected. Even in the SB Nation Mock Winter Meetings, the Cardinals signed Hughes to a three-year, $24 million dollar deal.

I had bowed out in those negotiations, once it was clear that the winning bid would need to guarantee more than two years. I wasn't willing to do that. I misjudged the market.

Still, none of that meas that the Twins didn't overpay in years, whether we're talking by accident or by design for whatever reason. We also know that, even if they had to go over market value in terms of guaranteed years, the Twins wouldn't do so - in spite of deep pockets - if they didn't feel it was a responsible decision.

Hughes turns 28 in June, which means that Minnesota is on the hook for $8 million (plus an extra million in incentives based on innings pitched) for his age-28, 29, and 30 seasons. That's young for a free agent, which is a plus. But there are certainly a number of things which are worthy of caution flags.

  • In 2010, 2012, and 2013, Hughes' three most healthy and productive seasons to date, he pitched 176.1, 191.1, and 145.2 innings. The Twins are paying him as though they expect him to throw 180 to 190 innings per season, and I'm not entirely confident he can hit those marks.
  • WAR has its uses, even for pitchers - I even used it as part of my analysis for the Nolasco contract - but it's not perfect. Hughes only needs to be worth roughly 1.7 wins above replacement per season to match the value of his contract, but if he's getting there while only giving the Twins 150 or 160 innings then we're leaving something on the table.
  • While his strikeout rates are typically right around league average, whether there are men on base or not, his swinging strike percentages are consistently below average. Not by a lot, mind you - enough to have been the best in Minnesota's sorry 2013 rotation - but it's certainly worth understanding.
  • Hughes can get a little homer-happy. His balls-in-play tendencies mean just less than half of batted balls qualify as flies, and of those, 10.2% of them have left the field. Going back to '10, '12 and '13, he allowed 25, 35, and 24 home runs respectively...in seasons with less than a full pitching load.
Some of these things can be mitigated going forward. The Twins need to do something to keep Hughes healthy, in terms of diet or training or whatever tools they have at their disposal. Granted, injuries are largely not preventable in most cases, but the training staff can still put Hughes in the best possible position.

Essentially, the Twins are hoping that they can get Hughes to pitch more innings while allowing fewer home runs, all the while asking him to maintain his strikeout rates. That's an impossible task.

There's no doubt in my mind that Hughes is a better pitcher than what Minnesota could muster internally, and I'm happy about that; I just think that the Twins are banking quite a bit on Hughes' potential over his numbers. And yes, I'm much happier to do that with a pitcher who is 27 over a pitcher who is in his 30s, but we're still relying on a lot of factors that are out of the Twins' (or even Hughes') control when we talk about the former Yankee being the pitcher we think he's capable of being.

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