When the Twins traded mega-ace Johan Santana after the 2007 season, they had good reason to be optimistic that their young pitchers could take his place. Nobody expected Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, or Kevin Slowey to win multiple Cy Youngs like Santana did. But it seemed likely that this young crew, along with phenon Francisco Liriano, would eat up innings and save Ron Gardenhire from having to worry about who gets the ball every fifth day.
That has not happened.
If a pitcher takes his spot on the mound every five games, he’ll end up with 32 or 33 starts by the end of the season. Assuming he can average just over six innings per start, he’ll end up with 200 innings – a nice round number, and a good indication of a pitcher’s durability. 19 American Leaguers pitched 200 or more innings in 2011. 21 did so in 2010. Each of those years, the Twins had just one pitcher accomplish the feat, and both times it was Carl Pavano. For all the praise the Twins farm system and scouting organization has received over the years, it has failed to produce a full-time starting pitcher since Santana left.
Baker has been a full-time Major Leaguer since 2008, but he’s only managed to reach the 200 inning mark once, when he pitched exactly 200 in 2009. Even that year, he missed time at the beginning of the season with a shoulder injury. This season, he was on the verge of a breakout performance, but elbow injuries struck again, limiting him to 134.2 innings.
Blackburn was the iron man of the rotation for a while. He notched 193.1 innings in 2008 and 205.2 in 2009. But the injury bug infected him as well in 2010. He threw 161 innings that year and 148.1 this year, thanks to a forearm strain.
Slowey was a bright spot in 2008, his first extended stay in the Majors. He went 12-11 with a 3.99 ERA in 160.1 innings. But his 2009 season was cut short with a major wrist injury, and he lost time in 2010 due to elbow problems. In 2011, when he wasn’t in Ron Gardenhire’s doghouse, he could be found on the bench, recovering froma biceps issue and abdominal soreness.
Liriano was the most exciting Twins pitching prospect of the last decade, and he has suffered the most from injuries. Tommy John Surgery cut him to 121 innings in 2006, eliminated his 2007 season, and limited his availability in 2008. He only pitched 136.2 innings in 2009 due to ineffectiveness that was also probably caused by the injury. In 2010, he almost made it to 200 innings, pitching 191.2 in a solid year. But he fell back on the injury bandwagon in 2011, pitching just 134 innings because of a bad left shoulder.
Combined, these four have just two 200 inning seasons: Baker and Blackburn in 2009. All four of them have at least four years of big league service time, but only Blackburn has made it through an entire season in the Major Leagues without an injury. And he hasn’t done so since 2009. For comparison, White Sox pitcher John Danks came up to the Majors in 2007, and he has already logged two 200 inning seasons, and another season where he pitched 195. Danks’s teammate Mark Buehrle has thrown 200 or more innings for 11 consecutive years.
People say that two is a coincidence and three is a trend. When all four of your young pitchers are hit by injuries every year, that’s worse than a trend; it’s cause for alarm. Assuming that there’s nothing in the water, and that the White Sox aren’t secredly going all Tanya Harding on the Twins’ arms, that means the Twins are doing something wrong.
Something is wrong with the way the Twins handle their starting pitchers. One explanation could be that the Twins are too willing to take chances with injury-prone pitchers. That was certainly the case with Kyle Gibson, who slipped to the Twins late in the first round of the 2009 draft because of an injury he suffered while in college. Liriano also had big problems with injuries in the minor leagues before the Giants dealt him to Minnesota (he missed nearly all of 2003 with a shoulder affliction).
Another explanation could be that the Twins trainers or minor league pitching coaches are not doing enough to prepare their young hurlers for the rigors of Major League pitching. If this is the case, hopefully the organization has noticed the problem by now, and is trying to figure out how to address it. They might consider looking at the way they build arm strength at the minor league level, or adding more manpower to the training team. Of course, any sports trainer that can stop the flood of injuries probably deserves the next Nobel Prize in Medicine.