At the time the Twins signed Ricky Nolasco, his four-year, $49 million contract was the largest ever given out to a free agent by the organization. He didn't fare well in Year One, as we know all too well, but there was some cautious optimism that with a full, healthy year he could start to deliver on his bank-breaking contract. Even for those of us who weren't necessarily all that hopeful, having an effective Nolasco in the rotation would be a lot better than any of the alternatives.
It only got worse. Nolasco made his scheduled start on April 8, the second game of the season, and was lifted after allowing six runs in three innings. His elbow had flared up and he hit the disabled list two days later, making room for Trevor May in the rotation. At least that worked out well.
Nolasco returned to make his second start of the year on May 2. He wasn't bad but didn't get the best results, which more or less fits his M.O. over the course of his career. In six May starts his best came on May 25, when he allowed two runs over seven and two-thirds innings, striking out five and not issuing a walk. It was the most complete performance Nolasco had given the Twins all season, mixing together plus command and continuing to show what had been a much improved breaking ball over his more recent outings. His improved results on his slider and curve are illustrated in his pitch values at FanGraphs:
It wasn't to last, as Nolasco suffered an ankle injury in the second inning of his start on May 31. There was some initial hope that he wouldn't have to go to the disabled list again, with the Twins scheduling him for bullpens between possible starts, but in the end there wasn't a choice. Minnesota placed their embattled right-hander on the disabled list. The doctors fitted him with orthotics, which wasn't a great sign considering they were "designed to restrict movement and promote recovery." The Twins weren't sure he'd pitch again in 2016.
Frustration in Nolasco's performance and health issues peaked, with some fans preferring to just cut him loose regardless of the monetary hit. Yet it wasn't as though Nolasco wasn't making the effort, and a player can hardly be held accountable for being injured. Tom Powers reported on his "strenuous off-season conditioning program" during spring training, which is one of the first places Nolasco's critics attack: the pitcher's fitness level. Mike Berardino later supplied a few more details, mainly on the change in diet. As frustrating as the results have been, there seemed to be a very clear distinction that Nolasco was doing his best to be prepared for the 2015 season.
The 32-year old would return to the club in the second game of a double-header on September 30. He struck out five and walked one in two innings of relief, but an intentional walk and one well-remembered home run backfired on what had otherwise been a good outing. He was allowed to start the season's final game and was less effective, allowing five runs in two and two-thirds innings.
In 2015, Ricky Nolasco gave Minnesota eight starts and one relief appearance. His two seasons with the Twins have left him with 196.1 innings and a 5.64 ERA. It's not what anyone wanted.
Rotation: Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, Kyle Gibson, Trevor May, Tyler Duffey, Tommy Milone, Jose Berrios
Bullpen: Anyone capable of pitching in the long relief role
If you had to pick Minnesota's starting five today - right now - for April 2016, all of these players might be preferable to Nolasco. It's not an enviable spot to be in for anyone involved, from the player to the club to the fans. But this is a very typical scenario for the Twins to find themselves in: do they give the roster spots to the younger, more talented players, or do they attempt to squeeze some value out of the struggling veteran? It's easy to take pot shots, but Mike Pelfrey - who most of us couldn't wait to be free of - was a consistent performer in the rotation in 2015.
Two years and $24 million remain on Nolasco's deal, plus the $1 million buyout of his 2018 option. I can't imagine a scenario where that option gets picked up.
What's his role for the 2016 team?
Major League depth is nice, especially where starting pitchers are concerned. How Terry Ryan and his front office choose to approach what has become an unfortunate situation will be rather telling.
Will they find a trade partner, having agreed to pay a large portion of Nolasco's contract or by partnering him with a good prospect (or both)? Will they choose to just outright him, believing the roster spot and the development of younger, better pitchers to be of more importance than the embarrassment of shelling out for a sizable dead contract? If either of those scenarios play out, one thing is certain: the Twins have confidence in their existing options, which means confidence in young arms like May, Duffey, and Berrios.
Criticism of Terry Ryan not being willing to take a big swing on the trade market may be fair, but he's also rarely been undersold. He's never paid a player to play for another club through a trade. He's conservative with prospects most of the time, which means that pairing a pretty good one with Nolasco just to get his money off the books also seems unlikely.
For better or worse, chances are that Ricky Nolasco will be a member of the Minnesota Twins come opening day 2016. That might end up being as a member of the bullpen, as one of the most expensive non-closer relievers you could imagine, but let's face the facts: it's also not entirely unfathomable to imagine the club giving him one final crack at the rotation.
How the Twins handle the Ricky Nolasco situation will be one of the biggest lynchpins of Minnesota's ongoing rebuild this winter. Torii Hunter's situation weighs heavy on the position player side of the equation; Nolasco is his counterpart on the pitching staff.
Perhaps the most fascinating angle of Ryan's answer for the Nolasco quandary is that, if he chooses, the answer may not lie in the veteran right-hander at all. The answer could lie in what happens to other Twins pitchers over the winter.