Still More Winter Transactions: Welcome Juan Nicasio and Mike Ford

marc w · December 15, 2017 at 12:55 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

I don’t think the pixels were dry on my last transactions recap when the M’s made a few more moves, signing RP Juan Nicasio to a two-year, $17 M contract and selecting ex-Yankee farmhand 1B Mike Ford in the Rule 5 draft. Fittingly, the two moves are linked thematically/roster-needs-wise to another of GM Jerry Dipoto’s moves in the offseason: the trade of Emilio Pagan for 1B Ryon Healy. Let’s talk about who the M’s got and why.

Nicasio was an injury-plagued starter in Colorado who pitched in perhaps the worst possible environment for a pitcher with nothing to throw to left-handed batters. He threw a lot of four-seam fastballs with plus velocity and not much else, and he threw a tight slider that occasionally confused righties. He tried to keep lefties off balance with a change up, but batters hit .429 over the course of two half-seasons in 2011-12. Over the course of his long career, batters still have a combined .719 slugging percentage off of Nicasio’s cambio. Moving to the bullpen took some of the pressure off of his change, not least because he could now sit at 95 with his fastball. His slider usage is up over 25%, too, and he’s finally found the confidence to throw it to lefties instead of his sub-par change. All of that pushed his strikeout rate higher, and some work with Ray Searage in Pittsburgh may have helped him keep his walk rate down.

More importantly, as Kate Preusser’s exultant post at LL reminds us, Nicasio’s history as a starter and his usage in LA and Pittsburgh shows that he’s quite capable of pitching multiple innings. This is, then, not simply a standard set-up guy who’ll pitch the 7th or 8th. What he does is replace the remarkably useful Emilio Pagan, who averaged about 1.5 innings per appearance last year. With question marks in the back of the rotation, and with the M’s looking to give more innings to the bullpen in 2018, this ability is crucial, and it’s why LL is so high on Nicasio. Plus, Nicasio’s shift to FB/SL against lefties has transformed him from a guy with awful platoon splits to a guy who ran reverse splits last year.

Nicasio’s K rate dropped a bit last year as batters put his fastball in play more often; their whiff rate was constant, but they hit more of them in fair territory in 2017. Moreover, his K rate against righties has fallen off, from over 10 per 9 in 2016 to under 7 per 9 last year. It’s been steady versus lefties, but small samples and exceedingly volatile HR rates make it hard to know what to expect next year. He was worth 1.4 fWAR in each of the past two seasons, but that masked volatility in runs-allowed, thanks to those crazy HR rates and some issues with stranding runners. To take these in reverse order, Nicasio’s never shown much of an abiltity to strand runners. He was above average last year, but that was the first time in his career you could say that. Yes, it’s not a terribly reliable stat, but Nicasio’s career rate of 70% is straight-up bad, and his since-becoming-a-good-reliever rate is…normal-ish. Great relievers show a consistent ability to strand runners, with your Kenley Jansens and Craig Kimbrel’s averaging 85% or so and getting above 90% with some regularity. Those guys cost an arm and a leg. But even lower-tier guys from Mychal Givens to Addison Reed to Zach Duke to Will Harris can stay in the 80s. Nicasio’s never done that. That’s why his ERA/RA9 has been higher than his FIP in two of the last three years. The M’s need the 2017 version of Nicasio, not the fluke-FIP 2015 version or the 2016 HR-troubled version.

The Yankees, armed with one of the deepest farm systems around, always knew they’d get poached in the Rule 5 draft. It’s why they made so many trades in the run-up to the draft to clear off 40-man spots, like the one they’d just given to Nick Rumbelow. Even with their efforts in November/December, they still lost *4* players in yesterday’s Rule 5 draft, the most of any franchise. With the 11th pick, the M’s selected 1B Mike Ford, a lefty-hitting/righty-throwing guy who’d put up solid numbers in the high minors last year. Similar to fellow new-Mariner Matt Hague, Ford is a control-the-zone star, posting great walk rates but little of the power you associate with the position. He’s projected for an ISO in the mid-150s, and a league average slash line of .241/.334/.398 that looks like a dead ringer for fellow LHB/RH throwing 1B Dan Vogelbach (whose projection is slightly worse at .242/.331/.393). Hague is a righty, and while he doesn’t have a projection at this point, it’d look pretty much the same. All of these guys post very good MiLB walk rates and surprisingly low K rates. Hague had the lowest AAA K% in 2017, while Ford’s done it more consistently. Vogelbach’s 6 months younger than Ford, while Hague’s much older at 32.

The M’s have essentially set up a competition at 1B featuring two righties in Healy/Hague and two lefties in Ford/Vogelbach. Ford goes back to the Yankees if he doesn’t make the club (or come down with a mysterious injury allowing the M’s to DL him), and Hague’s a minor league free agent. But three of these guys have similar skill sets: the precise opposite of Healy’s. I think Dipoto would love to have a bench bat who could spell Healy AND provide a lot more plate discipline than Healy’s going to give you, and thus it’d be nice if this pseudo-platoon guy batted lefty. This competition may be Vogelbach’s last shot to prove that he can contribute to this team, and I could see him moved in the spring if Ford grabs the job. Of course, it’s awfully hard to carry a 1B-only bench bat when you have an 8 man bullpen, as the M’s apparently will. Tying up two roster spots in marginal 1Bs may squeeze more production out of the line-up spot (and it won’t cost the M’s much), but it really makes the 25-man roster a bit more limited.

This gets to the issue with the Healy deal. Not only did the M’s lose a multi-inning RP making league minimum in Emilio Pagan, but the cheap 1B starter they acquired has tons of red flags. In a full year last year, Healy was worth 0.2 fWAR thanks to a very low OBP. His projection for 2018 is 0.2 again. The M’s can’t compete with a below-average-hitting 1B, and that’s essentially where they are. TO blow those projections out of the water, they can either show a hell of a lot more player development chops *at the big league level* than they’ve shown heretofore, or they can supplement Healy’s pop with a healthy dose of a high-OBP platoon partner. No team wants to count on production from a Rule 5 guy; that’s a recipe for disappointment. But if it all goes right, Ford could potentially be a contributor. Is that enough? We’ll see.


7 Responses to “Still More Winter Transactions: Welcome Juan Nicasio and Mike Ford”

  1. TumwaterMike on December 15th, 2017 5:29 pm

    I’m concerned that we don’t have a veteran back-up for Mike Zunino. If he were to miss a good deal of time we’d be screwed. Lets get “Chooch” back.

  2. mrakbaseball on December 15th, 2017 9:11 pm

    I thought the Mariners were against the idea of having another platoon situation at first base again. They said Healy was going to play everyday and now with the acquisition of Ford, I don’t know what to believe anymore.

  3. TumwaterMike on December 15th, 2017 11:13 pm

    Reading J.D. comments, It appears he wants Ford to give Healy some breaks and be a LH bat of the bench.

  4. stevemotivateir on December 17th, 2017 1:56 am

    Marc, do you really think Seattle would use an 8-man bullpen AND keep Ford? I know Armstrong is out of options, but Zych still has a couple. Why not start the season with a normal 7-man bullpen and worry about changes when/if they arise?

    It would also seem possible that Healy could have a terrible spring and end up optioned himself. There will likely be cheap 1B free agents lingering around if neither Ford or Vogelbach were to cut it, though my money is on Ford stealing the job. Much better lineup balance if he does which was an issue early last season.

  5. don52656 on December 18th, 2017 3:48 pm

    Isn’t it somewhat troubling that we’re spending $17 million on someone to replace Emilio Pagan?

  6. TumwaterMike on December 19th, 2017 7:25 pm

    Didn’t we use Emilio Pagan to get Ryon Healy?

  7. LongDistance on December 21st, 2017 2:22 am

    I don’t think even Jack Z could have warmed up this hot stove season. Trying to see if there’s anyone out there, is like listening for signs of extraterrestrial life.

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