As I write this article I will start by stating that I was not the largest Ricky Nolasco supporter in 2014. I had mentioned it multiple times on our radio show and even a couple times in posting on blogs, our website, or just chatting with Twins fans. I wasn't happy with Ricky's performance in 2014, most fans weren't happy with it, I would have to bet that management wasn't pleased with it for the price but most of all I think Ricky as a professional athlete, is the one that should be bothered by it the most and use it as fuel for the fire in 2015.
Even though he has dropped in the rotation, based on pre spring training rankings, Nolasco will still be expected to be a valuable third starter behind Phil Hughes and Ervin Santana. If Ricky can return to a level close to what he has previously pitched at during his time in the National League, this would give the Twins a decent return on the money. It may not be the full return that all fans want but I would throw out that there are number one starters making 15-20 million a year so Nolasco was never paid number one starter money but was paid number two starter money and the Twins will have to look to having his performance as a third starter be enough for this investment. Here are a few reasons why I think that Nolasco can turn this around and be more successful in 2015.
- Injury - Nolasco was pitching injured in 2014 and while trying to go out there for your teammates each start shows loyalty, it became obvious that this injury was definitely affecting Nolasco's performance. The strained flexor pronator in his elbow is no longer an issue as has been reported from Fort Myers this spring. Players like Phil Hughes have even commented on how much better his sinker looks this year and expect an improved year from Nolasco. The other item here is that the front office and management staff now know about this injury and I don't expect there will be any hidden issues like in 2014.
- Past Performance - Taking away an injury filled 2014 and looking at Nolasco's past performance shows why last year should be looked at as an abnormality and not the norm. He has posted double digit wins in every other MLB season that he has pitched, with the exception of 2007 when he pitched in just five games that season due to an elbow inflammation injury. Not counting the injury seasons on 2007 and 2014, Nolasco has averaged over twelve wins a season and an ERA of 4.35 during that span. While not ace numbers, these numbers definitely translate into a third or fourth starter for the Twins. It's also important to note that Nolasco pitched well towards the end of the season in 2014. While only having a 1-2 record, Nolasco did record a 2.93 ERA, only walked five batters in five starts, held hitters to a .299 OBP and .377 SLG. These numbers prove to have optimism for Ricky Nolasco improving in 2015.
- Improving Offense - The final point is not just related to Nolasco and his personal performance but also the improvement of the players around him and the Twins offense showed in 2014 that they are ready to make those steps to improving. Young players such as Kennys Vargas, Danny Santana, and Oswaldo Arcia continue to make strides and show that they are becoming everyday major league players. With the addition of Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, and other young players such as Eddie Rosario, the Twins are building an improved young offensive club that will be able to score runs and help pitchers get an additional couple of wins under their belt. The addition of Torii Hunter will also make this a better ball club from an offensive standpoint, both with his bat and how he will be able to work with the younger hitters to make them better as well. This all leads to the Twins continuing their offense performance from 2014, when they were the fifth highest scoring team in the American League.
When looking at these factors and the fact that Nolasco will have a new manager and pitching coach to deal with, I do feel strongly that he will have a much improved season in 2015. I will stand by my prediction of 13 wins and 13 losses with an ERA of 4.50. While these aren't ace numbers, if Hughes wins 17-18 games, Santana wins 15-16 games, Gibson wins 13-14 games, and the fifth start posts 10 wins or more, this would be a staff that would win 68-71 games by itself. Note that the Twins bullpen won 20 games in 2014 not counting Anthony Swarzak or Sam Deduno's spot starts. This means that if the bullpen even only won 10-15 games in 2015, the Twins could still be looking at a 78-86 win season.
In closing it means that with the injury truly being cleared up and with a young, improving offense in front of him, there are no roadblocks for Nolasco to rebound in 2015 and return to close to his performance while starting in the National League. Nolasco will be vital to the Twins success or failure in 2015 as the pitching staff was the weak link in 2014 and will need to improve to get this team closer to contention. I see this as an opportunity for Ricky Nolasco in 2015 and we will watch during the spring to see how the improvement progresses.