Starting Rotation Options


The Twins’ bullpen was the biggest scapegoat of their poor start, but since the All Star Break, the starting rotation has had more than its share of problems. Nick Blackburn is undergoing his annual second half meltdown. Francisco Liriano still hasn’t strung together more than two good starts. Brian Duensing has failed to repeat his dominance from 2009 and 2010. And Scott Baker, the team’s best starter this year, will likely spend the rest of the season on the DL.

In a column for the Star Tribune on Monday, Patrick Reusse noted that the Twins will shed $37 million in payroll this offseason ($40 million if you count the $3 million that Jim Thome is making). Reusse argues that the Twins must use this money to acquire two starting pitchers to head their currently-awful rotation. In reality, not all of the money that the Twins save will be available; they may re-sign Michael Cuddyer or Joe Nathan, the front office may require a payroll reduction, or the team may choose to spend some money to shore up a terrible middle infield. But as Reusse correctly points out, there may be  as much as $30 million available for starting rotation help.

In any other year, this would be enough to bring in a true ace pitcher. But the free agent market for 2012 looks pretty thin. A list of potential 2012 free agents can be found here. As you can see, other than CC Sabathia, who might opt out of his massive contract to extort even more money from the wealthy Yankees, there isn’t a lot available on the starting pitching market.

Here are a few highlights, though, with some notes on how they could help the Twins:

Mark Buehrle

The 32 year old is having one of his best seasons in Chicago, posting a 3.14 ERA and a 10-6 record. He’s a rare commodity: a “pitch to contact” style starter who is consistently successful from year to year. 2011 is the 11th straight season he has won 10 or more games. He’s a known commodity, and he would probably fit in great with the Twins. But it’s pretty much impossible to imagine Buehrle pitching anywhere other than Chicago. If he doesn’t re-sign with the White Sox, he may retire. 

Aaron Harang

Harang is another experienced starter, and unlike Buehrle, he has a history of being able to strike out batters in large numbers (career 7/4 K per 9 innings). But Harang struggled in his last three seasons in Cincinnati before a decent performance this year in San Diego. He’s currently 12-3 with a 3.96 ERA and 95 strikeouts in 131 IP. Those numbers might be a fluke, thanks to the pitcher-friendly environment in San Diego and the rest of the NL West. The Twins should stay away from Harang, who might get shelled in the American League.

Rich Harden

The Twins have shown interest in Harden before. When at his best, he’s a strikeout machine who can dominate opposing hitters. But he has yet to pitch 200 innings in the major leagues. In fact, he has only topped 150 innings once – way back in 2004. His health is so much an issue that the Red Sox cancelled a trade for him this summer after looking at his medical records. The Sox ended up trading for Erik Bedard instead – and if Bedard is considered less of an injury risk than Harden, you know that Harden has problems! Still, Harden won’t turn 30 until November, and he might be worth a look if the Twins can sign him to a bargain basement contract. 

Edwin Jackson

Jackson is the wild card on this list. He’s a former All Star who has pitched in the World Series, thrown a no-hitter, and boasts a high 90s fastball and a nasty slider. But he’s also one of the most erratic pitchers in the game, guaranteed to be among the league leaders in walks every year. Jackson’s lack of consistency is one reason he’s played for five teams (Rays, Tigers, Diamondbacks, White Sox, and Cardinals) since 2008. Some team will offer him at least a three to four year deal this offseason, and that stability may be exactly what Jackson needs. He could be a big boost for the Twins if they’re willing to be patient.

Livan Hernandez

Hahaha. Just kidding.

 Hiroki Kuroda

Kuroda has put up some good numbers in pitcher-friendly Los Angeles, but the Twins should not seriously consider signing him, since he will be 37 next year.

Jason Marquis

A 12 year veteran, Marquis has been solid but not impressive for most of his career. His last two seasons, spent in Washington before a summer trade to Arizona, have left much to be desired. Marquis gives up a lot of hits, and he doesn’t miss many bats. He would not provide anything that the Twins’ rotation doesn’t already have.

 Brandon Webb

The former NL Cy Young winner hits the free agent market again this offseason after signing with Texas for 2010. Thanks to some nasty shoulder injuries, Webb has pitched a grand total of 16 innings since the end of 2008. No team in its right mind would count on Webb in its plans for 2011. Still, at 33 years old it’s possible that he could become a competent pitcher again. It might be worth it for the Twins to bring him for a look in Spring Training, since he’ll probably be available for a very low price. But if Webb were the only offseason move, the Twins rotation would not look any better than it does today.

 CJ Wilson

Wilson is the best starting pitcher scheduled to become a free agent this offseason. Though he spent most of his career as a closer, Wilson proved in 2010 and 2011 that he can be a workhorse starter, if not a bona fide ace. In 2010 he went 15-8 with a 3.35 ERA and 170 strikeouts in 204 innings. This year, he’s 12-5 with a 3.20 ERA and 159 Ks so far. Those numbers, combined with the lack of top-of-the-rotation pitching on the market, should make him a hot commodity this fall. Look for him to earn a deal in the range of $15 to $20 million per year. The intense competition will probably price Wilson out of the Twins’ range, but Bill Smith should at least place a call to Wilson’s agent to show the fanbase that the Twins are not lying down this offseason.

Signing Wilson would be an incredibly bold move, but Twins fans shouldn’t hold their breath for that. The competition is almost guaranteed to be way too strong, and Wilson will almost certainly end up collecting giant paychecks for a large market team.

Of the other options, Jackson is probably the best. The Twins should make a very serious attempt to bring Jackson back to the AL Central. It would not be a bad idea to make an offer to Harden or Webb, as well, with the understanding that neither is expected to contribute very much and any production would be considered a bonus.

The good news is that free agency isn’t the only option for Minnesota.In the near future, I’ll take a look at some potential trade candidates who could help the Twins, and then at some minor league pitchers who could see action in 2012.

What do you recommend the Twins do? Please use the comment section to give your opinions about which free agents – if any – the Twins should pursue.