Rebuilding the Twins: Starting Pitching
For much of the last decade, the Twins have relied on a strong infield defense and pitchers that generated a lot of ground balls. Most years this strategy pays off and the Twins are in the upper half of the league in terms of starter’s ERA. However, this past season the Twins did not have a strong infield defense and the starting rotation struggled. But now if the Twins are going to reclaim their success in the AL Central, they are going to need to reclaim their starting rotation success.
Another thing the Twins could go after would be a proven ace. Granted, the current state of the Twins farm system is pretty bare, but they do have a few prospects that could bring back an established starter to slot into the rotation.
Let’s start by looking at the rotation from last year, including some of the starters who were injured at the end of the year and possible candidates through free agency and trades.
Pavano was rewarded with a 2 year contract extension this past offseason after a strong 2010 season. He struggled for the most part last year but did prove that he is healthy by throwing 222 innings in 33 starts. While his record of 9-13 was unimpressive, his ability to eat innings will make him a member of the rotation again next year near and I expect him to be near the top of the rotation if not the opening day starter.
After a Comeback Player of the Year season in 2010, Liriano took several steps backward in 2011. He finished the year with a 9-10 record and a 5.09 ERA. Liriano experienced a drop in his strikeout rate and his walk rate ballooned to 75 walks in just over 134 innings pitched. Liriano struggled throughout the year with his control, including walking 6 batters in his no hitter on May 3rd. Liriano has always had electric stuff, but he seems to fight himself a lot of the time to stay in control and to keep his delivery and mechanics in line. After the 2010 season the Twins had a couple of opportunities to trade Liriano and would have been able to maximize his value had they done so. He would have commanded top prospects from and team that was in need of starting pitching. The Twins decided to keep him however, and now he looks to be a member of the rotation in order to try to prove his abilities and talent can translate into wins and strikeouts.
Baker was in the midst of his best season as a Twin before an elbow injury stopped his 2011 season short. He made a few relief appearances late in the season and finished the year 8-6 with a 3.14 ERA. Had Baker not been injured he could very well have been the number 1 starter for the Twins heading into the coming season. But with his ability to pound the strike zone he will definitely be a part of the rotation next season if he can prove his durability. Baker has made over 30 starts just once in his career, usually making between 20-28, however the gap between the number of starts he makes and the usual 32-33 starts a starter typically makes in a year could become troublesome especially if this team has playoff aspirations.
Blackburn was another Twins starter that battled injuries throughout the 2010 season. He finished the year with a 7-10 record and a 4.49 ERA. Blackburn battled forearm issues that caused a drop in his fastball velocity. He also struggled with his sinker, causing him to get hit hard more often than not, giving up 183 hits in just over 148 innings. When Blackburn is pitching well he generates a ton of ground balls, and needs to rely heavily on his infield defense to make plays behind him. With a refined infield defense and some time to heal his injuries, Blackburn should be able to contribute in a major way to the rotation next season.
And with Brian Duensing expected to return to the bullpen, that leaves one spot open in the rotation. Here are possible candidates:
Swarzak made 11 starts for the Twins last season, filling in for the handful of Twins pitchers that missed time with injuries. Swarzak finished the year 4-7 with a 4.32 ERA and is a soft thrower that relies on his control. While he did an admirable job filling in but I believe he is better suited in long relief and spot starting roles.
Does he get the job? No, but expect Swarzak to make the team out of spring training as a bullpen arm.
Diamond was another pitcher that filled in while the starters dealt with injury issues. Diamond finished the year 1-5 with a 5.08 ERA. Diamond is another soft thrower who relies on control and finesse to get batters out. The fact that he is left handed makes him worth keeping, but I think Diamond needs another season or 2 in the minors to work on refining his control.
Does he get the job? No for Diamond also, but he will be one of the starters in AAA and should get a call up if one of the main starters gets injured.
Hendriks was a late season call up that ended up getting a few starts to see if he could be an addition to the rotation or bullpen next season. He had an 0-2 record with a 6.17 ERA in 4 starts last season and had a 16-6 walk to strikeout ratio. Hendriks possesses the ability to limit his walks and keep the ball in the strike zone, but I think another season or 2 in the minors will help Hendriks continue to get starts and refine his abilities.
Does he get the job? No for Hendriks. Look for him to start in AAA all year to get some innings and experience under his belt.
Buehrle has been a Twins nemesis for 11 years, beating them often with grit and finesse. Not an overpowering pitcher by any means, Buehrle instead wins games with his control and by knowing how to get hitters out. One of the most attractive things about Buehrle from a free agency standpoint is his durability. Buehrle has made at least 30 starts and reached the 200 innings plateau every season he has been a full time starter. For a team dealing with injury prone starters, this would be a welcome signing for the Twins. Granted Buehrle is expected to receive a long and expensive contract, but for a team wanting to show it is still fighting for the division, why not shell out the money it would take to bring Buehrle to Minnesota?
Does he get the job? As much as I would like to see Buehrle in a Twins uniform, I don’t think it will happen unless the Twins are willing to offer 4 years and $15-16 million per season. If they do that, he could end up signing here. But I think he will get the money for a different team.
Jackson was acquired from the White Sox by the Cardinals at the July 31st trade deadline and helped the Cardinals win the 2011 World Series. Jackson pitched well down the stretch and figures to get plenty of interest this offseason. Jackson has familiarity with the AL Central, having pitched for both Detroit and Chicago earlier in his career. Jackson has the ability to generate strikeouts and rely on his defense. And in a pitchers park like Target Field, he wouldn’t be so susceptible to giving up homeruns. For a middle of the rotation starter, Jackson wouldn’t be a bad signing for a team looking to bolster its rotation.
Does he get the job? This would be a great signing if Jackson would want to come pitch here. It would be a pretty expensive signing though, maybe requiring a 2 or 3 year deal worth $10 million per season. But if Buehrle is going to go elsewhere, Jackson would be a cheaper option and I think the Twins should peruse him. I will say that Jackson ends up getting signed to a 2 year deal with an option.