February 22, 2008

Competition: Starting Pitcher

Hello again everyone. Like I mentioned earlier this week, I'm going to be gone this weekend (going to Milwaukee) so unfortunately (or fortunately, whichever way you see it) there won't be any posts this weekend.

Yesterday I gave my thoughts on the center field competition, and to my surprise (alright, not really surprised) I got a couple e-mails saying how wrong I am about Carlos Gomez and that Jason Pridie should be the starting center fielder, and should be given the job. I didn't choose to reply to the emails, as they didn't just rip on the post, but also the site, so here's my response as I didn't feel like getting into a jarring through e-mails. Besides the fact that it's all speculation and I don't really see a right or wrong answer, I do think it's wrong for a team to just hand over a position to a prospect without them having to earn the spot. I don't know how anyone can justify just handing the position over to a player without them deserving it, at least to one that has not proven himself at this level. Both Gomez and Span would probably benefit from at least another 1/2 season of AB's in AAA, but it's not going to stunt their development if they don't. Pridie is not that much farther along than either of the other two players competing for the spot. I think it's a joke to hand the position over to one player, and not just Pridie, but Span and Gomez as well.

Now, back to today's post. This off-season, the Twins completely turned this franchise around as they lost key players such as Carlos Silva, Torii Hunter, and Johan Santana, they gained a few guys who will definitely help this team out not only this year, but for the future. Those players include Delmon Young, Brendan Harris, and Carlos Gomez. And as you can tell, the Twins lost their two best pitchers from a year ago, making a fairly strong rotation, into a weak one. The team has one starting pitcher over the age of 26 and he (Livan Hernandez) has never even pitched in the American League before.

So without further ado, here's this years candidates for the starting rotation:

Livan Hernandez

Livan Hernandez is the Twins "annual" veteran pitcher signing that should provide veteran leadership to our young rotation, while holding down one of the other 4 options down from making the team. I don't mean to be critical of the signing, as I do like it to a degree, but I just wish we signed him, not at the expense of holding another pitcher back from claiming a spot. He should give the Twins over 200 innings, as he's topped 200 innings for the last 8 years. And in fact, if you'd like to think about it as well, he was only 1/3 of an inning away in 1999 from making it 10 straight season of over 200 innings. And in fact, his lowest season besides 1999 was in '07 when he pitched 'just' 204 innings for the Arizona Diamondbacks. The one big downside of the signing (besides holding down another player) is that he's never pitched in the American League and as we all know, the American League lineups are better than the National League, and he'll definitely have a hard time proving himself in the A.L. this season. He's a very emotional pitcher who (in that aspect) could remind Twins fans a lot of Carlos Silva. Unfortunately for Hernandez, he's never had a high strikeout rate and always had problems with his control. That is one big reason big reason that his .278 career batting average against may balloon this season, especially when it was a career high .308 in 2007. I think that he'll provide veteran leadership, but if he doesn't produce, hopefully he keeps his cool and continues to be the mentor that this team brought him in to be.

Boof Bonser

He had a disappointing 2007 season after a promising '06 season. The Twins stuck with him for most of the season in the rotation, but after his demotion to the bullpen late in the season, the Twins management determined what may be the problem. The 6 foot 4, 260 pitcher may have lost his "second wind" during the 5th and 6th innings in which he was shelled by apposing batters. In fact, he started looking a lot like the David Wells, and that's not meant to be a good thing.

The problem was his weight, and the Twins set up an off-season goal for him to lose 25 pounds. He's reportedly lost around 30 pounds since the end of last season. He hired a nutritionist, and he just maintained a healthy diet. It was apparent as he was seen eating an apple before he signed autographs at Twins fest. Hopefully he doesn't just stop at 30 pounds and continues to be a "workout warrior" as I think the better shape he's in, the better he'll pitch. The season could potentially be make or break year for the 26-year-old Bonser as the Twins have some great, young arms close to reaching the majors. I am excited to see what he has this season and hopefully he'll put up some good numbers and eat up some innings. It's unclear whether he'll start in the Twins rotation, the Twins bullpen, or in Rochester's rotation. A lot will depend on how strong his arm is in Spring Training.

Scott Baker

The Twins got some great numbers from Baker in just 143.2 innings last season. He started out strong for the Twins, nearly pitching a complete game shutout in his first start of the season against the Milwaukee Brewers. After that, he hit a big road block after giving up 20 runs over his next 4 starts or 18.2 innings. He regained his true form in August (although had a few good streaks in between) and was great the rest of the season. 2008 will also probably be a make or break year for Baker as well and I am optimistic that he too will have a good season for the Twins, however I also think that if he fails again, he'll be gone by the trading deadline in July.

Nick Blackburn

He exploded in 2007 to be one of the best pitchers in the Twins organization. After a sub-par career, he won 10 games and compiled a 2.54 ERA in 148.2 innings between New Britain and Rochester. He struggled with the Twins, however in 11.2 innings, he really was shelled in 3 of the innings which made his ERA look horrid. But he did show a bit of promise, however I think he'll need a great Spring Training to crack the rotation. But the Twins may keep him on the roster to help with long-reliever duties and spot-starts.

Brian Duensing

He's the only pitcher on the list that's not on the 40-man roster, and he's the only one who has not had any major league appearance. He's a solid pitcher, although he doesn't project more than a back-end starter in a rotation. Of course, I do want to see him pitch before I make a proper assessment on him, as I'm just going off of written reports of him (although I did see him on FSN this season when they had the "Red Wings Rewind" although it was just clips of him pitching). He's got the lowest chance of making the rotation.

Kevin Slowey

Slowey has had a great career in the minor leagues posting a career 1.93 ERA in 354.1 innings. He also has compiled a very good 8.7 K/9 ratio, which is good considering he's considered more of a control pitcher. He struggled in the majors in 66+ innings this season, although he showed a lot of potential and I think the Twins have something special in Slowey. He's been compared to the likes of Greg Maddux for his great control and at the age of 23, that's a very high praise. I hope that he continues to progress as I see him being a potential top-of-the-order starter at some point in his career.

Francisco Liriano

Liriano's a guy the Twins wish they knew what they were getting in as he returns from Tommy John Surgery that he underwent last fall. If he was healthy, it would've made the Twins decision to trade Johan Santana a lot more easier as he's a potential ace, but his injury brings concern to the Twins front office of whether if he'll ever come back to the same form as he had in 2006 when he was probably the best pitcher in the league before he went down with the injury. All the reports of his progress through rehab have been very promising and Twins fans should feel optimistic about his return, but they shouldn't be naive as well. There are a lot of things working against Liriano in his return to greatness and they have to understand that it may take a year or two for him to regain his full form, if he ever does at all. Of course another thing to be optimistic about his return is the fact that his rubber ligament that he had implanted in his left elbow should allow him to pitcher pain-free and may even give him more velocity on his fastball which before his injury topped out at about 98 MPH.

Here's what Ron Gardenhire had to say (just yesterday) on Liriano and his velocity:
"He's letting it fly," Gardenhire said. "He threw two innings at the [Twins' Dominican] academy and they said he was averaging 93 and throwing it up to 96. Free and easy."
If that doesn't make a Twins fan feel good, then I don't know what will. Besides a championship, obviously.

Philip Humber

Philip Humber (pronounced umber), was acquired along with Gomez, Deolis Guerra, and Kevin Mulvey in the Johan Santana trade a few weeks ago. He is another pitcher who recently has gone through Tommy John Surgery, however he's already one step ahead of Liriano, he's had a healthy season since then. Humber's numbers in AAA last season were not magnificent by any means, but he was effective and generally speaking, the first season returning from that particular surgery is usually considered a wash. He did strike out a lot of batters, which is a positive as that's what he's best known for and before the surgery he was also reaching the mid-upper 90's with his fastball. Right now, his velocity is improving and last season he reportedly was averaging a 93 mph fastball last year which touched 96 a few times. But besides the amazing ability to put gas behind his fastball, Humber's been known to possess (one of) the best curveball in the minor leagues which makes batters look silly at times.

Nick Nelson believes that Humber could thrive in the bullpen.

Glen Perkins

Perkins is a hometown favorite, with solid numbers throughout the last 5 seasons, going back all the way to his days at the University of Minnesota. Primarily a starter, he's been used as a middle reliever for the Twins in limited time the past 2 seasons. His major league numbers are great, however the Twins would like to work his arm into the rotation as he possesses middle-of-the-rotation potential. He may open the season in the Twins bullpen, but I hope they start him in Rochester's rotation and work him into the Twins rotation at some point during the season.

Other guys we'd have to at least consider, but I see having little chances of making the club: Brian Bass, Zach Day, Randy Keisler, and Casey Daigle. I don't think that Kevin Mulvey is ready, as he has only pitched 6 innings in AAA, but I know someone will mention him if I didn't, so I guess he's a consideration.

My Thoughts

I think that there's really going to be no surprises as far as who is in the rotation. I don't see guys like Brian Duensing or Nick Blackburn making it over someone such as Kevin Slowey or Francisco Liriano. Here's my prediction as of right now:

1) Livan Hernandez - Workhorse, Twins will like having him at the top of the order, but how will he handle the American League?.

2) Scott Baker - Needs to prove more if he wants to keep himself in the Twins long-term plans in terms of pitching.

3) Boof Bonser - Make or break year, he's going to need to show that he can last into the 6th or 7th innings every 5th day to help the wear and tear on our bullpen.

4) Kevin Slowey - He's young, but he can't rely on good run support to get wins this season in the majors, I have high hopes for him this season.

5) Francisco Liriano - I think that Liriano will ultimately win a rotation spots, the Twins don't want him in the bullpen and it's not an ideal situation to send him to Rochester where he'll be battling with bad weather for the first month or two.

And what about the staff as a whole?

But just because one of the other guys such as Glen Perkins or Nick Blackburn don't make the rotation, that doesn't mean they won't be on the roster. Gardenhire also shared his plans to go with a 12-man pitching staff when the season opens:
"We're going to take the best 12, and if it gets down to two lefties, great," he said. "We just want to get one lefty here Reyes] and go from there."
And with that, one would have to assume that 11 of the spots are already 'locked down', barring injuries.

Dennys Reyes
Juan Rincon
Jesse Crain
Pat Neshek
Matt Guerrier
Joe Nathan

Who could that "???" be? There's a few options listed above that may handle the position. Glen Perkins is a possibility as he's already experienced success in the bullpen and is also a lefty. Nick Blackburn could also help the team in the bullpen as he'd be able to handle long relief. The same can be said for Humber. Other guys such as Julio DePaula and Bobby Korecky could aslo make a run for the spot. But a "dark horse" candidate that should be considered is Jason Miller. Miller had a brief call-up with the Twins last season, and in 3.2 innings of work he did quite a good job, before he was shelled for 8 runs in 1/3 of an inning in his last appearance with the team. He's been used as both a starter and as a reliever in the minors and has faired quite well. He has a career 3.41 ERA with 544 strikeouts in 593 innings. He's also a left-hander which makes him have more of a chance to break spring training with the club. The only thing that's really against him is that he's currently not on the Twins 40-man roster and the team would need to make some sort of roster move to make room for him.

What are your thoughts on the Twins 2008 rotation and bullpen? Have a great weekend!