On Monday, the Brewers claimed Sean Nolin off waivers from Oakland. Nolin was one of the pieces that the A’s acquired in the shocking Josh Donaldson deal from last offseason, and despite the fact that he was supposed to be a high-floor and low-risk addition, his 2015 season was mildly disappointing. He made six big-league starts and posted a 5.28 ERA, which is undoubtedly subpar. Six big-league starts is also clearly a small sample size, so we should not overly react to his 29 major-league innings.
It is, of course, possible (and maybe even likely) that the A’s also know all of this. Nolin was a part of the return for their best player for a reason, and a half dozen poor starts with the big-league club probably would not have influenced their ultimate evaluation of him. However, as this MLB Trade Rumors article mentions, Nolin is out of options. The A’s also have a completely full 40-man roster, so they simply had no room to keep the 26-year-old southpaw.
Nolin’s profile hasn’t changed a ton since the Donaldson trade. Last offseason, BP’s prospect staff described him as a low-risk, back-of-the-rotation starter, and he probably still is. He was competent in the minor leagues, with his 2.66 ERA looking even more impressive once we consider that it came in the hitter-friendly PCL. At Brew Crew Ball, our former colleague Derek Harvey speculated that Nolin’s preseason sports hernia may have contributed to his struggles, and he missed some time at other points during the season with other injuries as well.
On that point, there is some convincing evidence that Nolin was hurt last year. His fastball velocity during his stint in the majors was about 3.5 mph slower in 2015 than it was in 2014. Even though that 2014 number is based on just 41 fastballs, velocity stabilizes much quicker than outcome-based statistics and we can get a better sense of Nolin’s true velocity than one might initially expect. Therefore, given that we have reason to expect the left-hander may very well have been hurt last year, his velocity decline and poor performance in the major leagues seems to be somewhat explainable.
Nolin is not a safe bet to make the roster, and he is most assuredly unlikely to make the rotation, as the organization has admitted. Matt Garza, Chase Anderson, Taylor Jungmann, Wily Peralta, and Jimmy Nelson are likely to get the five rotation spots, which means that if Nolin sticks with the Brewers it will be as a reliever. His aforementioned roster status — being out of options — makes this complicated, as if he does not break camp with the Brewers, he will go back on waivers.
Ultimately, taking a chance on Nolin may or may not work out, but its importance is that it further symbolized David Stearns’ approach to rebuilding. The Brewers know that, barring a miracle, they are not going to make the playoffs this season, so they have spent the year taking flyers on players with impressive pedigrees who had become freely- or cheaply-available for one reason or another. It is this philosophy that has led to the acquisitions of Chris Carter, Garin Cecchini, Rymer Liriano, and Will Middlebrooks, among others. Players of this ilk are unlikely to be stars, but each was a relatively highly-touted prospect at one point, and the Brewers are gambling that some of these players will turn into usable big-leaguers in the future.
Nolin is a similar bet. He was the Blue Jays’ fifth-ranked prospect after 2013 and the A’s third-ranked prospect after 2014. His disappointing 2015 season makes him a reasonable rebound candidate — a post-hype sleeper, if you will, even if this is the least exciting type of post-hype sleeper.
He may not work out, though! His being out of options makes keeping him on the roster difficult. If he struggles greatly in spring training, the Brewers may decide he is not worth the hassle and that his performance issues in 2015 were legitimate.
If this happens, the world has not ended. Nolin is another one of a series of gambles that the Brewers are taking this year. And if only one or two of these players works out, the experiment will have been a success. David Stearns has taken advantage of a lost year by giving opportunities to players who would not currently deserve major-league playing time. Sean Nolin is a prime example of this. Whether or not he works out, this is a bet that is well worth making and indicative of the thought processes that Stearns is utilizing.