Dodgers after Ricky Nolasco, but should they be?


Nolasco has been relentlessly mediocre in his career, but recent mechanical changes might have altered his outlook. Will it be enough?

It's ancient history now, but Ricky Nolasco has changed teams before. He was drafted not by the Marlins but by the Cubs. A little over four years later, they packaged him with two other pitchers (Renyel Pinto and Sergio Mitre) in exchange for one season of Juan Pierre. Pierre had a typically mediocre season for the Cubs and departed as a free agent. Meanwhile, Nolasco, who was coming off of a Southern League "Pitcher of the Year" citation, reached the majors in 2006 and except for a demotion in 2009 has been pitching for the Marlins ever since.

What he hasn't necessarily been doing is pitching well. Throughout his career Nolasco has been relentlessly mediocre. There was a brief spell in late 2008 when he looked like he had finally metamorphosed into an ace, finishing the season with a 2.78 ERA over the last two months, but he quickly did away with such notions by opening 2009 by posting an incredible 9.07 ERA in his first nine starts and earning the aforementioned demotion. The Cy Young-worthy campaigns that seemed to be in the offing were permanently preempted. From the moment of his recall to the present, Nolasco has posted a 4.32 ERA in 128 games. On the whole he hasn't been terribly bad, but he hasn't been good either. He's just been there.

Maybe "just there" will be good enough for the Dodgers or another acquiring team. After all, the Dodgers have had to fill out their rotation with unproven types like Stephen Fife and Matt Magill, the latter of whom has been unsustainably wild, while the former's minor league record suggests a very limited upside. Nolasco would provide something approaching greater certainty the rest of the way, even if that would be a certainty of mediocrity.

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Nolasco may have been consistent in the sense of results, but his style of pitching has undergone a transformation in recent seasons. Previously a fly-ball pitcher who gave up more than his share of home runs, particularly to left-handed hitters (they have hit .280/.334/.451 career against him, which is to say that the average southpaw hitter turns into a batter roughly resembling Adam LaRoche or Anthony Rizzo when facing him). His home run tendencies climaxed in 2010, when he allowed 24 in just 157.2 innings. Since then, Nolasco has been getting a few more grounders, but these seem to have come at the expense of his strikeout rate, which dropped in three straight seasons from 2010 through 2012, crashing to 5.9 last year. He's rebounded to 6.9 this season, still a bit below average for the National League. This may be the result of a mechanical adjustment that has allowed him to be a little more deceptive where lefty hitters are concerned.

Nolasco retains very good control, and since missing time with inflammation in his pitching elbow, his only major injury since 2007 has been 2010 knee surgery. He'll be a free agent after the season. In summary, the Marlins are offering possible trading partners is a rental on a reasonably durable right-handed pitcher who strikeouts out a relatively small number of hitters and may not have a consistent way of retiring left-handed hitters. His 2013 ERA+ of 106 (ERA adjusted for park and league context, 100 being average) is the second-best of his career; from 2009-2012 it was 87. The new Nolasco could be real, or he could revert, just as he did in 2009.

The upside would seem to be limited, but before you decide how much you would you pay for this model, consider that pitchers are a changeable lot. Put Nolasco in a different ballpark, give him some run support and a better defense and he could look like a different pitcher altogether. There is a long history of pitchers who looked bad with bad teams doing a 180 once they reach a good one, particularly when they fall into the Dodgers' hands.

I have also seen the opposite, having been a Yankees camp follower in 1987, when George Steinbrenner told his manager, "Lou, I've won you the pennant. I got Steve Trout." Trout was so bad that he started triggered a cascade of problems that a team that was in first place at the time of his acquisition ultimately finished fourth.

The Dodgers are rumored to be heavily after Nolasco. They have prospect Zach Lee pitching well at Double-A, but the Dodgers know their own players best -- if Lee isn't ready, if Fife and Magill seem like poor bets the rest of the way, then perhaps Nolasco would represent an upgrade. But is he an upgrade worth having if you're the Dodgers? Again, the answer would seem to depend on the price, but consider that if all else remains the same in the National League West -- that is, none of the teams between the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks get hot and the D'backs keep playing at a .530 pace -- the Dodgers would have to play at a 99-win pace the rest of the way to pass them.

Hanley_mediumUSA Today Sports

That's not impossible -- the Dodgers team we're seeing now isn't the same one that got off to such a poor start. Yasiel Puig's terrific start is part of that, as is the resurgence of Hanley Ramirez and the return of Matt Kemp and Zack Greinke from injuries. Asking a team to play at that level is difficult, but given the weaknesses of the other teams in the division, you can't rule it out.

That said, it's worth remembering that this team is still very much in a rebuilding mode, even if the payroll and ownership's ambition would make it seem as if they're not. The Dodgers can't mortgage the future, particularly not in return for a league-average type like Nolasco. The good news is that the system is not particularly deep just now, and if the mortgage anything it would seem likely to be something in the way of a Cape Cod-style house rather than the whole danged future.

Having said all of that, the Dodgers' chances would still seem remote and Nolasco seems an unlikely hero Certainly more upgrades, particularly at third base, would be required. If I seem to be talking in circles, it's because there is a great deal we don't know and can't know -- what a Fife or Lee might do the rest of the way, what Nolasco would do if freed from the sorry excuse of an organization he plays for, what the Dodgers would have to give up to get him. There's every chance that Nolasco goes on to post another 95 ERA+ the rest of the way and proves to be only an incremental increase over what the in-house options would have done.

The only thing we do know for certain is that by pushing to get a pitcher at the end of June rather than waiting until the end of July, they will have stolen a march on their NL West competition and gotten perhaps six more starts out of their acquisition than they otherwise would have. That's something. Whether it proves to be a good thing or not is a whole other question.

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