If Angels right-hander Ricky Nolasco obtains 14 more outs this season than last, he'll guarantee himself a $13-million salary in 2018. So says a provision within the four-year, $49-million contract he signed with Minnesota three years ago.
If Nolasco does not throw at least 202 1/3 innings, thus amassing 400 innings between 2016 and 2017, the Angels can buy him out of that salary for $1 million and make him a free agent. And, under the terms of the August trade between the two teams, the Twins would cover that cost.
A lot is at stake this season, and it could be close.
"It's a big deal to me," Nolasco said Monday at Tempe Diablo Stadium, ahead of the Angels' first full-squad workout of the spring. "I know what's at stake — something that, obviously, I want to get to, no matter what happens. When I first signed that contract with the Twins, I thought, 'Well, as long as I stay healthy, this is a five-year deal.' It's kind of been on my mind since day one."
Nolasco has reached 200 innings only twice in his 11-year career, but he has come within one start of that benchmark three times, including last season, when he was on track to start Game 162 for the Angels but scratched, leaving him at 197 2/3 innings. At year's end, it could prove to be the difference between whether or not his option vests, but he said he did not regret the decision.
"At that point, we just thought, 'Why?'" he recalled. "If something bad were to happen that last start, I'd be really mad at myself."
Still, it is not difficult to envision the emergence of an issue in September, if the Angels are out of contention. Similar options have often led to disputes between teams and players. As recently as last season, Oakland outfielder Coco Crisp implied the Athletics were sitting him to avoid a $13-million option for 2017 that would vest at 130 games played.
"I'm extremely hurt, the way things are being handled," Crisp told the San Francisco Chronicle in August. "I'm not calling anyone names, but this is really frustrating and disappointing."
The A's traded him two weeks later.
As a Dodger in 2013, Nolasco finished two outs shy of 200 innings, which would have netted him a $250,000 bonus. He said he had not discussed the latest matter with the Angels since his acquisition.
On Monday, Angels Manager Mike Scioscia interrupted a query about how he would handle Nolasco's chase of the marker.
"I have no idea about contracts, so I don't even want to hear about it," Scioscia said. "He's gonna pitch, and hopefully pitch well."
Asked for his stance, General Manager Billy Eppler said he was rooting for Nolasco to throw as many innings as he could.
"I hope Ricky takes the ball every fifth day and does his thing and goes deep in games and wins a lot of ballgames," Eppler said.
Prospect Alex Meyer, a 6-foot-9 right-hander, was the centerpiece of that deadline deal last Aug. 1, which sent pitcher Hector Santiago and minor league right-hander Alan Busenitz to Minnesota. Still, Nolasco impressed the Angels with his pitching in 11 second-half starts. He logged a 3.21 earned-run average over 73 innings while following advice from pitching coach Charles Nagy to pound the lower half of the strike zone with more sinkers.
"I know that was the biggest difference: the sinkers," Nolasco said.
But the right-hander from Rialto will turn 35 in December. Two rival talent evaluators polled this week said they do not expect him to approach $13 million in annual pay unless his option vests.
Nolasco said his specific goal was to make every scheduled start. If he takes the mound 33 times but falls a few outs short of vesting the option, he will live.
"If I throw 200," he said, "I'm still putting myself in a pretty good situation."
Switch-hitting infielder Kaleb Cowart, likely to begin the season in triple A, is currently batting only right-handed as he eases back from an oblique strain, he said. …Left-hander Nate Smith, the pitching prospect who was shut down last September because of biceps tendinitis, said the injury had bothered him for more than a month before he reported it to the team, on the eve of an expected call-up to the major leagues. He let the tendinitis heal and altered his off-season workout program, he said, in an attempt to prevent it from happening again.