Any well-informed fan could probably write a book about the reasons for the Twins 2011 collapse. That aspiring author would need to devote at least a chapter to the terrible collapse of the team’s starting pitching. It would be quite a page-turner.
Book deals aside, the Twins have to start thinking about what their rotation will look like in 2012. Previously, I listed a few free agents who will be on the market as well as few who might be available via trade. But no matter how aggressive the Twins are on the market this offseason, they’ll need to fill out most of the starting rotation with players who are already on the team.
Here are the in-house candidates for the 2012 rotation:
For about two months this season, Baker looked like the savior of the Minnesota rotation. But then he, like nearly every other Twins veteran, succumbed to injuries that have ruined his second half. When healthy, Baker is a solid front of the rotation starter who won 15 games in 2009 and notched an 8-6 record with a 3.21 ERA this year. He’s a shoo-in for the 2012 rotation, and may even be the Opening Day starter, as long as his arm troubles are in the past.
Nobody expects Blackburn to be an ace. At his best, he is a competent number 3 starter who is capable of eating innings and winning games, given a solid defense behind him. But that all depends on impeccable control of his sinker, something that he has lost on a regular basis each of the last three seasons. In 2011, he was arguably the most hittable pitcher in baseball, with a WHIP of 1.60. Ideally, the Twins would cut Blackburn out of their future plans entirely. Unfortunately he still has two more seasons left under contract and is owed about $7 million.
The Twins selected Diamond from Atlanta in the Rule V draft this spring, and while he wasn’t good enough to make the Major League roster, the team liked him so much that they traded away a highly regarded relief prospect (Billy Bulluck) to keep him. Diamond had an ugly year in AAA (4-14, 5.56 ERA), but injuries in Minnesota have prompted him to make six starts in the Majors. The 25 year old may one day mature into a MLB-level pitcher, but he’ll never be more than a back of the rotation starter.
Duensing was a savior for the Twins in 2009 and 2010, consecutive season in which he shifted from the bullpen to the rotation late in the year, provided new energy to the team, and mystified opposing hitters. In 2011, he started the season in the rotation, and opponents found him a lot less mysterious. Duensing’s 2011 WHIP of 1.54 is nearly as frightening as Blackburn’s, and opponents have hit .297 off him.
Another prospect forced into Major League duty before his time, Hendriks has been a mainstay in the Twins September rotation. He pitched well at AA, with a 2.70 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 90 IP, but three MLB starts have made it pretty clear that he could benefit from a full year at AAA.
Liriano’s disappointing 2011 has to rank as one of the most frustrating aspects of this season. In 2010 it looked as if the lefty had finally slain his injury demons, and he entered this year poised to have a breakout campaign. Instead, he got off to a terrible start with a 9.13 ERA in May, and he hasn’t gotten on any sort of a roll since. To add injury to insult, shoulder problems have erased the last two months of his season. The only consolation is that, if past patterns hold, he should be better in 2012 than he was in 2011.
Pavano is the Danny Valencia of the pitching staff. His 2011 performance is not nearly as impressive as he was in 2010, but he has been healthy and dependable all season long. He should finished with somewhere near 220 innings pitched for the second consecutive year. That durability, combined with a contract that owes him $8.5 million next year, pretty much guarantees that Pavano will be a member of the starting rotation in 2012.
Slowey is as likely to gone next year as Pavano is to stay. By all accounts, he is unpopular with the other players and the team management. That would not be a major problem if Slowey pitched well, but he has not. Prior to his Wednesday evening start, Slowey was 0-6 with a scary 6.51 ERA and just 4.8 strikeouts per nine innings.
Like Diamond and Hendriks, Swarzak probably should not have been in the Major Leagues in 2011. He did an admirable job this summer making spot starts in place of injured veterans, but the longer he stayed in the rotation, the easier opponents have found it to hit his pitches. His best role is as a long reliever/ emergency starter.
Of the pitchers listed above, only Pavano, Baker, and Liriano deserve to be in the starting rotation next year. Pavano’s 4.40 ERA may be disappointing compared to last year, but he is actually a pretty good arm to have in the mix – as long as you don’t count on him to be more than a #4 or #5 innings eater. If Pavano is the Opening Day starter again next year, the Twins will probably have another uphill struggle all season long. Baker and Liriano have both shown occasional flashes of brilliance since they came up in September of 2005. But neither one has managed to stay completely healthy for an entire season since then. At least one needs to step up and pitch to his full ability all season in 2012.
If the Twins defy common sense and fail to sign a couple of free agent and/or trade for an experienced starter, Swarzak and Duensing will probably compete for a slot in the rotation. This would be a bad thing. 2011 proved that Duensing is better suited to a relief role, where he can hide his lack of overpowering stuff for an inning at a time. And Swarzak has never demonstrated he has the talent to be in a Major League rotation.
Diamond and Hendriks should make a decent 1-2 punch at the top of the Rochester Red Wings’ pitching staff next year. Both of them probably have a future in the Major Leagues, but neither is ready right now.
What do you think the Twins should do with their starting rotation next year? Use the comments section below to tell us your master plan.