Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The SP Dilemma

With the annual Winter Meetings out of the way and spring training just a couple months away (already... can you believe it?), the Twins have filled a few holes in their roster and seem dedicated to keeping things the same as last year as much as possible. They made moves to bring back Carlos Silva, Torii Hunter and Rondell White; they added some depth to their infield by signing Jeff Cirillo; and they signed a couple long-shots to minor-league contracts. They also brought in a kid in the Rule V draft by the name of Alejandro Machado, who I think has a good shot at making the roster as a utility man.

The case can be made that the Twins' roster is pretty much set offensively (although certainly not in ideal terms). Each starting position is filled, with Justin Morneau, Luis Castillo, Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett manning the infield; Joe Mauer returning at catcher; and the trio of Rondell White, Torii Hunter and Michael Cuddyer occupying the outfield spots. Jason Kubel appears to be the top choice at designated hitter at this point in time. The bench will likely comprise Mike Redmond, Cirillo, Jason Tyner and Lew Ford, with the last few spots remaining up for grabs.

Likewise, the bullpen seems essentially set in stone, with each hurler from the phenomenal 2006 unit set to return.

While these aspects of the roster appear to be in relatively good shape, one unit remains in a major state of flux: the starting rotation. With Brad Radke retiring and Francisco Liriano gone for the year in the aftermath of his elbow operation, the Twins are left with at least one gaping hole in their rotation. Finding a reasonably priced starter via free agency or trade was Terry Ryan's top goal coming into the off-season, and during the first couple months he has been unable to take care of it. During that span, many options have come off the market. Mid-level starters like Vicente Padilla, Gil Meche, Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis have signed (albeit ridiculous) contracts, and a few potential trade targets, such as Jason Jennings, have already been moved.

At this point, three spots in the rotation appear to be locked up by Johan Santana, Boof Bonser and Carlos Silva. Another spot may go to Matt Garza, who has good stuff and may be ready after getting some seasoning last year. That final spot in the rotation, however, remains a question mark. It is possible that Ryan will not make a move, and he will look at another of the younger and inexperienced pitchers in the Twins system, such as Glen Perkins or Kevin Slowey. Scott Baker is another possible option, but his stock has dropped considerably after an extremely disappointing 2006 campaign.

Since Perkins and Slowey (or any other of the Twins promising minor league starters for that matter) have almost no major league experience, it's tough to see Ryan going into the season with one of them occupying a spot in the rotation. Clearly, Ryan is a guy who values experience (Juan Castro over Jason Bartlett, anyone?), so the notion that be content with a rotation that included Bonser, Garza AND another inexperienced youngster is almost unthinkable.

The more likely outcome remains a veteran acquisition. As was noted above, many possible targets are no longer available, but there are still a few guys out there that Ryan might take a look at. One such pitcher is free agent Sidney Ponson, who posted a 6.25 ERA in 85 innings between the Cardinals and Yankees last season. Ponson has intrigued scouts because he can throw hard and he had a few solid years with the Orioles. Ponson is still only 29, but he has poor control and his numbers over the past three seasons have been exceptionally ugly. At this point, it's unrealistic to expect him to put up better numbers than Silva did last year. Another free agent the Twins have reportedly spoken to is Ramon Ortiz, a 33-year-old right-hander who pitched for the Nationals last season. Like Ponson, Ortiz has not pitched well over the past several seasons, although his numbers have not been quite as bad. Having either of these pitchers in the same rotation as Silva could be a recipe for disaster, and might be a stretch to expect pitching coach Rick Anderson to work his magic and orchestrate a career revival for any of them.

While free agency bears little promise for the Twins' starting pitching dilemma, a trade always remains possible. I haven't heard any serious rumors pop up since the Jennings trade failed to materialize, but the Twins do have some valuable trade nuggets that they could afford to part with (such as Juan Rincon and Baker).

However they go about it, it is important that the Twins add another arm to their rotation if they expect to contend this season. Ryan should probably look to make a move in the near future before all of his options evaporate.