The Twins have never been a team built around great pitchers. Of the club's seven retired numbers, just one belongs to a pitcher: Bert Blyleven's 28, and even he spent half of his 22-year career with other franchises. The club has had its bright spots on the mound, from Jim Kaat to Blyleven to Frank Viola to Brad Radke and Johan Santana. But even in their best years, the Twins rarely succeeded due to great pitching. The club ranked in the American League's top three in ERA just twice in the 2000s, but still managed six division titles over the decade.
Now, the Twins have lost at least 96 games in each of the past three years, and it should come as no surprise that the major culprit has been a lack of competent starting pitching. The club's 5.08 ERA from 2011 through 2013 ranks last in the league, even behind the Rockies and the Coors Field effect. Of the 20 pitchers to start at least one game for Minnesota over this span, just eight have graded out as above replacement according to Baseball-Reference.
As such, the motivation for Minnesota's weekend signing of Phil Hughes to a three-year, $24 million contract should be apparent. The Twins need talent on the mound, even if that talent comes in the form of unfulfilled promise, as it does with Hughes.
Some will dispute the combination of the word talent and the baseball player Phil Hughes, and understandably so. Hughes is coming off an atrocious season (5.19 ERA, 4.52 FIP) with New York, and was similarly bad in an injury-ridden 2011 campaign (5.79 ERA, 4.61 FIP). His career 4.54 ERA and 4.31 FIP scream minor league deal, not a multi-year eight-figure contract.
In the context of Phil Hughes, though, talent is what earned him "Most Exciting Player" and "Best Pitching Prospect" in the ever-tough Eastern League from Baseball America in 2006. It's what made him the same publication's fourth-best prospect in the game prior to the 2006 season. It's why people like ESPN's Jayson Stark wrote things like this in March of 2007:
"It isn't often in life that we can see the future. But the New York Yankees can.
"And its name is Phil (Don't Call Me Philip) Hughes. …
"And not just because a bunch of Yankees legends have been tossing around a torrent of "young Rocket" Roger Clemens comparisons all spring. …
"He's 6-foot-5, 220 pounds. He launches baseballs with a smooth, compact delivery that has drawn comparisons to Clemens and Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina. And his four-pitch repertoire is so dominating that he turned the entire Eastern League into a collection of .179 hitters last year."
This, of course, was six years ago. In the six years since, Hughes has established himself as a mediocre pitcher, if not worse. But in the past few years, we've seen so many failed prospects pick themselves up and make good on their potential, just a few years later than we expected. The same year Hughes was fourth on Baseball America's top 100, Alex Gordon was second. Gordon, like Hughes, was touted as a franchise cornerstone only to mightily disappoint in his first few campaigns in the majors. It took a position switch and a minor league season before Gordon finally broke out in 2011, at age 27. He made his first All-Star team at 29, Hughes's age next season.
Consider Carlos Gomez. The Brewers center fielder was a top-60 prospect in both 2007 and 2008 as a Met before being the centerpiece of the Johan Santana trade. He routinely disappointed with the bat until he broke out in 2013 as a 27-year-old, when he finally broke an .800 OPS for the first time and earned an All-Star appearance. Or Francisco Liriano, who went years after his brilliant 2006 stint with Minnesota before experiencing a rebirth in 2013 with the Pirates. Or Josh Hamilton, who topped Baseball America's list in 2001 but didn't become an All-Star until 2008 as he struggled with personal issues.
And despite Hughes's poor overall performance, there are a few intriguing peripheral numbers to consider. His career 2.68 K/BB is above average, particularly for a starting pitcher, and is the driver between his relatively good peripheral statistics. It's largely why both FanGraphs (4.3 WAR) and Baseball Prospectus (6.3 WAR) consider even his poor past three years with the Yankees to be significantly better than what we've seen from any Twins pitcher (except the often-injured Scott Baker) since 2011.
More notably, Hughes's numbers on the road have been markedly better on a regular basis. For his career, he owns a 4.10 ERA against a 4.96 mark in cozy Yankee Stadium. It makes sense, too -- Hughes's arsenal, primarily consisting of a power four-seamer and a slider, is prone to fly balls, and he has allowed at least 10 percent more fly balls than ground balls since becoming a regular starter in 2010. It's a poor combination for New Yankee Stadium and its constricting right field fence, but one that could work better in the spacious outfield of Minnesota's Target Field.
Obviously, Phil Hughes is far from the ideal free agent pitcher. But the Twins are in no position to buy a $100 million ace even if one were available this offseason. The list of free agent pitchers for next year appears barren and will only shrink as contract extensions are negotiated over the next year.
The Twins will not compete until their next prospect infusion, but it figures to be a big one. Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton both look like future superstars, and there's enough depth behind them to put Minnesota's farm system among the top few in baseball, if not atop the list.
But with the Twins' rotation needing an overhaul from one through five, it's unlikely the fix can come entirely from within. Hence, the club must take on flawed pitchers like Hughes, whose value primarily comes from so-called potential. It's why the club was willing to take a $49 million flyer on Ricky Nolasco, another pitcher whose peripheral statistics have, at least until last season, suggested a better pitcher than the results on the field. Neither is ideal, but when ideal is not an option, gambles must be made.
Prior to inking the pitching duo, Minnesota's only contractual obligation beyond 2015 belonged to Joe Mauer. It's a $23 million per year commitment, but in Target Field, the Twins have shown the willingness to spend upwards of $100 million. There's a good likelihood either Hughes or Nolasco (or both) flame out in the Twins rotation, just as so many have in Minnesota over the past three years. But if Minnesota is going to compete when Buxton, Sano and the rest are ready, there will need to be at least a starting pitcher or two in place. Without giving up prospects -- something the Twins organization can ill afford to do at this point -- it's unlikely they could find more talent on hand for the money than Hughes, as flawed as that talent is.