Monday, March 20, 2006

Position Analysis: Starting Pitcher

Despite trotting out the worst offense in the American League last year, the Twins miraculously managed to finish with a winning record thanks to an outstanding pitching staff. This year, the top four starters are back and two young stars with a lot of potential will vie for the final spot. Whichever one takes it will almost certainly be an upgrade over what Joe Mays gave them last year. Things are definitely looking promising for the Twins' starting rotation for the 2006 campaign.

Johan Santana
2005 stats: 231.2 IP, 16-7, 2.87 ERA, 238 K/45 BB, .97 WHIP

One of the huge numbers for Johan last year was this: 24. That is, 24 quality starts. With a quality offense, Santana should have easily won 20 games last year and, naturally, his second straight Cy Young award. However, as we all know, the Twins' offense was putrid and Santana had his award stolen by the unworthy Bartolo Colon.

This year, I wouldn't expect anything different from Johan. The only thing that should and will hopefully change is his tendency to get off to slow starts. If Santana can get through April and May with a 3.50 ERA and a .500 record, look out. Since 2003, post-All Star break, Johan is an incredible 30-3 with a 1.90 ERA, 312 Ks in 298 innings and a jaw-dropping .187 opponents' batting average. He really seems to turn a corner the last two months of the season, as he is 14-1 in August with a 1.52 ERA and 10-1 in September with a 2.03 ERA. Inexplicably, his only really problem month is May, where he has gone 5-6 with a 4.65 ERA.

I suspect Santana will turn the corner, at least somewhat. He's way too good not to. And he looked great in the WBC. My prediction: 19-5, 2.70 ERA, 250 K, .95 WHIP, another Cy Young.

Brad Radke
2005 stats: 200.2 IP, 9-12, 4.04 ERA, 117 K/23 BB, 1.18 WHIP

This may be Radke's last year in a Twins uniform and that's too bad. Radke really is a solid pitcher and a good number two starter. He hardly walks anyone (23 walks in 200 and 2/3 innings last year) and is a great big-game pitcher (remember his stellar starts against Oakland and Anahiem in the 2002 playoffs?). Most of all, he's really a good guy who stuck around here through all the awful seasons and for less money to win with the Twins. Hard not to respect that.

As for the 2006 season, he may have injury woes. A bad shoulder shut him down at the end of the year in '05, but Radke to me remains a 200-inning guy. The ERA should fall somewhere between his 2004 and 2005 numbers. I'd say 14-11, 3.75 ERA, 1.15 WHIP.

Carlos Silva
2005 stats: 188.1 IP, 9-8, 3.44 ERA, 71 K/9 BB, 1.17 WHIP

A bit of a surprise last year, Silva did some great things while pitching with a knee injury. He threw a 74-pitch complete game, ended the year with only 9 walks allowed (.43 per nine innings, a modern big league record), and was a solid pitcher all year round. Of course, his defense behind him is key, since he is almost a one-pitch pitcher--sinkerballer. Last year, he gave up a lot of hits but managed a low ERA, mostly do to his ability to get the double play at will. He'll need that again this year. An improved defense behind him should help him achieve that goal.

Like Radke, Silva has some injury concerns, but he appears to be doing just fine. Silva should toss around 200 innings this year, as he easily goes deep into games by throwing a lot less pitches than most. I'd say expect I rise in ERA, but not by that much. My prediction: 13-10, 3.60 ERA, 1.22 WHIP

Kyle Lohse
2005 stats: 178.2 IP, 9-13, 4.18 ERA, 86 K/44 BB, 1.43 WHIP.

Lohse is sort of the outlier of the bunch. While Silva and Radke give up their share of hits, they manage to keep their WHIPs low by walking very few hitters. Lohse has good control too, but his isn't quite as good. The fact that he gave up so many hits and struck out so few is concerning. He isn't a sinkerball pitcher like Silva, so the low strikeout rate is something to watch out for.

Lohse, to me, isn't as good as his ERA might make him seem. He's a fine bottom-of-the-rotation guy, but after he listened to Rick Anderson last year and focused on getting ground balls (3.93 ERA in the second half), he seemed to get away from it again late in the season, as his ERA rose in September. He still seems like a stubborn personality who doesn't mesh with the Twins clubhouse and could be perfect trade bait for Terry Ryan. Plus, with youngsters Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano right behind him, the Twins may not need him if the rotation stays healthy. For that reason, I doubt Lohse will spend the whole year with the Twins. I say he goes 6-8 with a 4.55 ERA before getting traded in July for another hitter.

Scott Baker
2005 stats (w/ Twins): 53.2 IP, 3-3, 3.35 ERA, 32 K/14 BB, 1.16 WHIP
2005 stats (w/ AAA Rochester): 134.2 IP, 5-8, 3.01 ERA, 107 K/26 BB, 1.11 WHIP

Fransisco Liriano
2005 stats (w/ Twins): 23.2 IP, 1-2, 5.70 ERA, 33 K/7 BB, 1.10 WHIP
2005 stats (w/ AAA Rochester): 91 IP, 9-2, 1.78 ERA, 112 K/24 BB, .88 WHIP

These two top pitching prospects, as we well know, are ready to fight it out in the last days of Spring Training, as Liriano has just returned from the WBC. It's an interesting battle, as Baker has the makeup of Radke, with some extra zip on his fastball, while Liriano has absolutely nasty stuff while throwing in the high 90s from the left side.

To me, it's very hard not to get excited about Liriano. Next to Santana, the guy could strike out over 200 hitters now. He also could blow up and lose his confidence, which is why I see Ryan staying cautious on this one. Liriano won't spend all of 2006 in the minors, though. He can't. He has nothing left to prove after demolishing Triple-A hitters last year. The likely scenario is that either Kyle Lohse gets traded early in the year or someone in the rotation gets hurt and opens a spot for Liriano. Liriano will break the rotation at some point, regardless, but his entrace will be dependent on the moves of the organization.

That leaves Baker in the fifth spot at the beginning of the year and likely in the fourth spot by the end. Baker did great after his call-up last year, but he won't sustain the low ERA all year and he'll have to go through some rough spots. My prediction is 10-9, 4.10 ERA with 120 Ks in 180 innings and a 1.30 WHIP.

As for Liriano, once he cracks the rotation, he should perform a lot better than he did in a few innings with the Twins last year (if you ignore the high ERA, he still dominated the hitters he faced). He should rack up close to 150 innings by the end of year. In those, I say he goes 9-6 with 180 Ks and a 1.20 WHIP.

All in all, looks like a pretty exciting and great rotation to watch. A Cy Young winner, a rookie phenom, a sly veteran, and a strike-throwing machine. Should be a top rotation to support this year's run.