In 2003, with the trade deadline looming, the Texas Rangers had a deal in place to send free agent to be first baseman Rafael Palmeiro to the Chicago Cubs. That deal fell apart when Palmeiro used his no-trade clause to veto the trade. The details of who was involved have never been fully disclosed, but one of the players coming to Texas was reportedly a 20 year old pitcher in high-A ball by the name of Ricky Nolasco.
The Cubs held onto Nolasco until the 2005-06 offseason, when he was packaged with Sergio Mitre and Renyel Pinto and sent to the Marlins for outfielder Juan Pierre.
And now, ten years after the Rangers reportedly agreed to acquire Nolasco, only to have the deal vetoed, Texas may be on the verge of trading for Nolasco again.
There have been rampant reports that the Marlins are aggressively looking to move Nolasco now, rather than waiting for the July 31 trade deadline, in part because, with an $11.5 million salary this season, moving him at the beginning of the month rather than the end of the month would save them almost $2 million. And then we have this, from Chris Cotillo of MLB Daily Dish:
Source: #Marlins working hard to get a deal done before Ricky Nolasco's start tonight.— Chris Cotillo (@ChrisCotillo) July 3, 2013
Watching Justin Grimm get pounded last night by the hapless Mariner offense certainly wouldn't reduce the Rangers' interest in Nolasco right now. Texas is, as fans well know, limping along with three-fifths of their preferred starting rotation -- Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison, and Alexi Ogando -- on the disabled list. Best case scenario for Lewis and Ogando is that they are back in late July, and Harrison is looking at an August return at best, a 2014 return at worst.
Rookies Justin Grimm and Nick Tepesch have been in the rotation most of this season, trying to fill in for the injured veterans, and while the Rangers have recorded one of the best records in the A.L. with those two filling 40% of the rotation, you have to question whether the front office really wants to continue relying so heavily on those two, as well as rookie Martin Perez.
Grimm's awful night last night followed on the heels of an awful month of June. Grimm ended May with a 3.93 ERA and three straight quality starts. In six starts since then, he's failed to record a quality start, has gone at least six innings only once, and has allowed 31 runs in 29 innings with a 9.31 ERA, including 9 homers allowed. Opposing hitters are hitting .317/.381/.650 off of Grimm during that stretch. With Nick Tepesch also struggilng in the month of June -- a 5.97 ERA in six starts spanning just 31.2 innings -- Texas may be at a point where they feel they can't limp along another month and hope that Lewis and Ogando come back at 100%.
I've generally taken the stance that the Rangers need to go big or go home when it comes to starting pitching help -- either get a legitimate top of the rotation starter you feel good about giving two starts two in a postseason series, or don't make a move at all. But as with last season, when the Rangers made a move for Ryan Dempster, Texas is finding itself in a situation where their rotation may need more stability than their internal options can provide. Thus, the reported interest in Nolasco.
And let's be clear...Ricky Nolasco is a back-end starting pitcher. Since posting a 3.52 ERA in 2008 (good for a 124 ERA+), he's not posted an ERA+ of 100 or better. This season's 99 ERA+ is the closest he has come during that time. In addition, while Nolasco put up some hot K rates early in his career -- from 2008-10, he struck out 8.6 batters per 9 while walking just 1.9 per 9, a very impressive 4.44 K/BB ratio -- his K rate had declined three straight years before ticking up this year, when h'es K'd 7.1 per 9.
What's made Nolasco a particularly curious case as a pitcher is that his fielding independent pitching (FIP) numbers have been steady since his great 2008 campaign. In 2008, he had a 3.77 FIP and a 3.52 ERA -- a fairly normal spread.
Since 2008, Nolasco's FIP's, by season, have been 3.35, 3.86, 3.54, 3.87 and a 3.55 FIP this year. In line with his 3.77 FIP in 2008, and fairly consistent overall. However, every year since 2008, Nolasco's ERA has been significantly higher than his FIP -- the spread between his ERA and FIP was 1.71 in 2009, 0.65 in 2010, 1.13 in 2011, and 0.61 in 2012.
This year, with a 3.93 ERA and a 3.55 FIP, Nolasco's spread is just 0.38, and as a result, Nolasco is having his best year since his breakout 2008 campaign. Consistent with that is that Nolasco's BABIP rate, .301, is the lowest it has been since 2008, and his LOB% of 71.9% is the highest it has been since 2008.
The question becomes, how much do you trust that this is the real Ricky Nolasco you're going to get for the rest of the season? As regular readers of LSB know, when a pitcher has multiple years where his ERA is significantly higher than his FIP, I'm reluctant to chalk that up entirely to bad luck or bad defense. And while Nolasco's BABIP and strand rate are solid so far this season, his rate of line drives allowed is the highest its been in his career, and his infield fly ball rate is the lowest it has been in his career, suggesting that the change in his BABIP and LOB% isn't necessarily the result of hitters just making weaker contact against him.
Nolasco is an enigma. If you think getting him out of Florida and putting him on a team like Texas, which has a quality defense (5th best in UZR in the majors this season, 4th in DRS) will bring his ERA in line with his FIP, then the Rangers are getting a guy who is probably a #3 starter (his career FIP- is 92, which means he's better than average, park-adjusted). If not, you're acquiring someone who is a fourth or fifth starter, at best.
The rumors have been that teams are willing to part with good prospects if the Marlins eat Nolasco's salary, or lesser prospects if the trading team pays Nolasco's salary the rest of the way. At $6 million, Nolasco is owed a hefty chunk of change going forward, and I'd be surprised if the Rangers were willing to part with prospects of significance for the privilege of paying him that much, particularly since that could impact their ability to take on salary for a hitter or a better starting pitcher (such as Matt Garza) down the road.
So it will be interesting to see how this plays out. The fact that the Rangers are apparently being aggressive of Nolasco suggests to me that they don't think there's going to be much in the way of upper-tier starting pitching available, and if the price for Garza is the same as the price was for Zack Greinke last summer, as has been suggested, the Rangers almost certainly would end up passing there.