The quality of the Twins’ starting rotation has varied wildly this year from completely awful to just a little bit awful. At this point, it’s difficult to say who will be in the rotation next week, let along next year. Francisco Liriano and Jason Marquis are gone, and if Carl Pavano doesn’t retire after an injury-plagued season, he’ll almost certainly sign with another team via free agency. Eight other men have made starts for the Twins this year. Scott Diamond (17 starts), Nick Blackburn (17), Cole De Vries (10), Liam Hendriks (8), Brian Duensing (7), P.J. Walters (7), Samuel Deduno (6), and Anthony Swarzak (4). Two others who have been held out due to injuries deserve at least some consideration for 2013: Scott Baker and Kyle Gibson.
So let’s comb through that list and see who deserves a shot to pitch when the Twins have a little more to play for.
Diamond. The young lefty has been such a pleasant surprise that he deserves a post all to himself, and I promise that one will come out soon. For now, let’s just agree that Diamond has pitched his way onto the 2013 Opening Day roster. The only things that should prevent that are an injury or the discovery that he faked his identity (a la Leo Nunez and Fausto Carmona) to escape from Canada.
Blackburn. Another pitcher who deserves his own post, Blackburn already got one. A couple weeks ago I opined that the Twins should cut ties with Blackburn, and I stand by that assertion. He has given the team some good years, but he is too young to be part of a rebuild and not a good enough pitcher to play for a contender. Of course, I don’t think for a second that the Twins actually will release him prior to 2013, but it’s still the right thing to do.
De Vries. Now we’re getting to the interesting pitchers. At first glance, DeVries appears to be a Diamond-like revelation. Like Diamond, the Minnesota native went undrafted out of college, but he clawed his way through the minors and broke into MLB at age 27. He has a 3.81 ERA and five quality starts. And he is actually a better strikeout pitcher than anyone else in the rotation – his 6.3 K/9 is tops on the Twins. But he has also given up an alarming number of home runs: 13 in 59 innings pitched. If he can find a way to cut down the longballs, he deserves a chance to compete for a spot next year. But that might be a big “if.”
Hendriks. Nothing has gone right for Hendriks in the Major Leagues this year, least of all the fact that opponents keep crushing his pitches. He’s 0-5 with a 7.04 ERA and 10 homers allowed in eight starts. But he’s also only 23, which means we have every reason to expect him to get better next year (if you don’t believe me, just look at how much better 24 year old Ben Revere is this year than his age 23 season). The even better news is that Hendriks has shut down minor league hitters at every level. At AAA this year he’s 8-2 with a dazzling 2.14 ERA and a respectable 7.0 K/9. Hendriks will eventually be a competent MLB starting pitcher, it’s just a question of when. He deserves a long look in Spring Training for 2013.
Duensing. Duensing is a Major League pitcher, but does he belong in the bullpen or the starting rotation? A certain internet writer argued a few months ago that Duensing would best serve the Twins as a starter, noting that he had pitched quite well in that role in 2009 and 2010. But his starting record has been spotty in 2012; opponents have put up a .345/.369/.549 line when he starts, compared to .238/.298/.306 when he relieves. And with Glen Perkins likely to be the Twins’ closer in 2013, the team will probably Duensing’s left arm to be available in the bullpen. Thus, unless the Twins somehow find another lefty capable of pitching in the late innings, Duensing should not be in the mix for a starting spot next year.
Walters. Thanks to an offseason spent scrounging for minor league free agents, the Twins have a surplus of 27 and 28 year olds who have had some success in the minors but have never been able to put it together in MLB. Walters is one of them. Before hitting the Disabled List with a shoulder injury, Walters put together a few surprisingly good starts, but he got knocked around in others. He’s a flyball pitcher who has always had homer trouble, and his control has never been as impeccable as the Twins like to see. He put up a 5.40 ERA and a 5.62 FIP in his seven start audition this year. That should be enough data for the Twins not to bring him back in 2013.
Deduno. Deduno is fun to watch, mostly because even he seems to have no idea where his pitches will end up. Through six starts, Deduno is 3-0 with a 3.27 ERA, but it’s hard to tell if that statline is completely the result of luck or if it’s because Deduno is a pitcher like none ever seen before on Earth, one whose “crazy” fastball is as confusing as his curveball is nasty. He also has a slider, but it’s nowhere near as interesting as the other two pitches. It’s difficult to see how Deduno could keep up a sub-4.00 ERA for long, though, since he has actually walked more batters (25) than he has struck out (22). At age 28, it’s difficult to believe that he’ll somehow learn to improve his control, but if he could, his two pitch combo would make him an excellent bullpen candidate. As it is, though, Deduno is a long-shot to wear a Twins uniform next April.
Swarzak. Like Duensing, Swarzak is a pitcher who does not fit neatly into the bullpen or the starting rotation. In a way, he’s like the Nick Punto of pitchers, a utility man who can help the team not by dominating the opposition, but by being available to do the bare minimum needed in any situation. Or if you’re a Vikings fan who remembers the 1990s, Swarzak the baseball version of Leroy Hoard, who once said: Coach, if you need one yard, I’ll get you three yards. If you need five yards, I’ll get you three yards.” Swarzak won’t strike out many batters, but you can count on him to post an ERA between 4.00 and 5.00 and eat some valuable innings. His best role is in long relief with the occasional emergency start.
Baker. The Twins can keep Baker around if they’re willing to pick up his $9 million option, but they’re more likely to decline it and try to sign him to a cheaper one-year deal. If he’s healthy by next spring, he deserves a chance to win a job based on his past production.
Gibson. Like Baker, Gibson had Tommy John surgery, but his surgery occurred last year, which means he’ll definitely be healthy by Spring Training. How effective he’ll be is, of course, another story. Gibson was a solid, but not awe-inspiring, prospect before he got hurt, and most people seem to think he could be a decent #3 starter one day.
To sum it up: Diamond is the only one who deserves a guaranteed job next year. Four others could be starters for the 2013 Twins. Baker and Gibson should start as long as they are healthy and effective. DeVries and Hendriks are long-shots, but they deserve a chance to at least compete for a back-of-the-rotation job. Five pitchers competing for five jobs seems like a perfect fit, but in reality it probably won’t work out that way. At least one or two will likely have health problems or fail to impress in the spring. And even if all five are healthy, none of them is exactly an awe-inspiring presence near the top of a rotation. Thus, the Twins should try to bring in at least one, and preferably two, pitchers via trade or free agency.
Who those others should be will be the subject of a future post.