Up to this point, we have analyzed all eight starting defensive positions as well as designated hitter, and there is essentially no debate about who will be filling any of those spots. The Twins lineup is pretty much set in stone. The pitching staff, on the other hand, is very much up in the air. When previewing the 2007 Twins, the pitching rotation has to be the focal point of any discussion. This will almost undoubtedly be the unit that decides whether or not the Twins can truly compete in the AL Central. So today, we'll take a look at the four guys who are widely considered locks, and then we'll look at the group of young players who will compete for the final spot. Keep in mind that just because most of the young guys will probably start the season in the minors, it doesn't mean they won't play a big part in the potential success of the 2007 Twins. If and when the washed up vets crash and burn, the team's success could very well lie in the arms of these untested and inexperienced yet hugely promising prospects.
2006 Stats: 233.2 IP, 19-6, 2.77 ERA, 245 K/47 BB, 1.00 WHIP
A third straight marvelous season earned Santana his second Cy Young Award in 2006. The 27-year-old led the league in nearly every pitching category, and was the one consistently stable member of a Twins rotation that was erratic and injury-prone. I felt, and continue to feel, that Santana was the most valuable player in the American League last season. He has been tremendously consistent over the past three years, and this year I'm going to predict that Santana comes out of the gates strong and actually has the best season of his career, regardless of the instability around him in the rotation. I predict the 28-year-old Santana will win 21 games with a 2.50 ERA and will add a third Cy Young trophy to his collection.
2006 Stats: 190.2 IP, 11-16, 5.57 ERA, 104 K/64 BB, 1.54 WHIP
After signing a $3.1 million contract in the offseason, Ortiz is essentially guaranteed a spot in the Twins rotation to start the season. As hard as I try, I have a really difficult time envisioning positive results for Ortiz this season. He posted absolutely horrendous numbers last year, and now he's moving into a less pitcher-friendly ballpark and into a league loaded with more offensive talent. Ortiz will turn 34 this season, and at this age pitchers generally tend to decline rather than turn things around for the better. Is it plausible that pitching coach Rick Anderson could help Ortiz straighten things out and post an ERA under 5? I suppose so, but I just can't see it happening. I say Ortiz has an ERA over 6 when he gets pulled from the rotation around the end of May.
2006 Stats: 180.1 IP, 11-15, 5.94 ERA, 70 K/32 BB, 1.54 WHIP
Regardless of how little reason he gives them to do so, the Twins continue to consider Silva a lock for the rotation. Coming off a 2006 campaign that saw him post arguably the worst numbers of any regular starting pitcher in baseball, Silva has looked absolutely awful this spring with an 0-2 record and 7.62 ERA. His sinker still isn't sinking consistently and opponents are knocking him around. Silva was a good pitcher back in 2005, but with each appearance that form seems to fade further into the distance. I'm not even going to bother projecting Silva's numbers, because I've lost hope that he can even be a competent major-league starter at this point. Hopefully the Twins' leash will not be as long as it was last year.
2006 Stats: 100.1 IP, 7-6, 4.22 ERA, 84 K/24 BB, 1.28 WHIP
Ron Gardenhire has shied away from specifically tagging Bonser as a sure thing for the rotation, but with Boof's outstanding performance down the stretch last year and his solid numbers this spring it's pretty tough to see him starting the season in the minors. Bonser isn't spectacular in any respect, but he's got good stuff and he knows how to pitch. I think he can be a very solid piece in the middle of the Twins' rotation, and I think he'll be there all year. I'd project 12 wins and a 4.50 ERA.
And now, a look at the three young guys (and the one old guy) vying for the final spot in the rotation:
2006 Stats (minor leagues): 135.2 IP, 14-4, 2.00 ERA, 154 K/32 BB, 0.87 WHIP
2006 Stats (w/ Twins): 50 IP, 3-6, 5.76 ERA, 38 K/23 BB, 1.70 WHIP
Man, take a look at those minor league numbers. They don't get more dominant than that. Garza started the 2006 season at Class-A Ft. Myers, then got a promotion to Double-A New Britain, and then was bumped again to Triple-A Rochester. At each level, opposing hitters were no match for Garza, who racked up big strikeout totals while showing good control and keeping runners off the bases. By the end of the season, the 22-year-old had thrown 50 innings for the Twins. Obviously, Garza's performance in the majors was a far cry from the dominance he showed at each level of a minors, but the results weren't overly discouraging for a young kid getting his feet wet in the big leagues. I think Garza could turn a corner this year (a la Justin Verlander 2006) and become one of the better young pitchers in the game. It may seem optimistic, but I'm going to go ahead and predict that Garza spends the majority of the season in the Twins rotation and wins 15 games with a 3.25 ERA.
2006 Stats: (w/ St. Louis & NY Yankees): 85 IP, 4-5, 6.25 ERA, 48 K/36 BB, 1.69 WHIP
Ponson was absolutely terrible last season, and really it has been several years since he was even a half-decent pitcher. Still, the Twins signed him to a low-risk minor-league contract in the offseason, allowing the 30-year-old to come in and show the team what he's got left in the tank this spring. Ponson has made only one appearance in the big-league camp so far, and it was dismal. He was shelled for four earned runs on seven hits in just two innings, allowing a walk and failing to strike anyone out. Gardenhire and the Twins have insisted that they will give Ponson every chance of making the team out of spring training, but unless he can get things turned around, Ponson's chances will not be great. The younger guys are just pitching way too well at this point to justify giving him a spot.
2006 Stats (minor leagues): 148.2 IP, 8-5, 1.88 ERA, 151 K/21 BB, 0.83 WHIP
Despite his brilliant work in two levels of the minor leagues last year and his nearly spotless performance this spring, Slowey is considered a long-shot to make the rotation at the outset of the season because he lacks experience past the Double-A level. Still, if he continues to pitch the way he did all of last year and the way he has this spring, there's no way the Twins will be able to hold him down in the minors much longer. Slowey has superb control and a fastball with good movement, but the one major concern with him is that he lacks a great second or third pitch, so when major-league hitters become aggressive and start swinging away at his fastball on the first few pitches, it could lead to problems. Nonetheless, Slowey has given us no reason to think he won't have success in the majors, and he could play a big role in the team's potential success this season.
2006 Stats (minor leagues): 121.2 IP, 4-12, 3.85 ERA, 134 K/50 BB, 1.36 WHIP
2006 Stats (w/ Twins): 5.2 IP, 0-0, 1.59 ERA, 6 K/0 BB, 0.53 WHIP
Perkins is an interesting case. The left-hander was a first-round pick out of the University of Minnesota in 2004, and he tore through the low minors to put himself on the prospect map. He first reached Double-A mid-way through 2005, and he struggled there in his first stint, posting a 4.90 ERA over 79 innings. He started last season back at New Britain, and he didn't improve his stock a ton. While he vamped up his strikeout rate considerably, his ERA was still unspectacular at 3.91 over 117.1 IP. Nevertheless, he received a promotion to the pitching-depleted Rochester in time for the International League playoffs, and he pitched well there. He then received a September call-up to the Twins and impressed the coaches by allowing just one run over four relief appearances, striking out six and walking none. Perkins has pitched well this spring, allowing two earned runs on nine hits while striking out eight and walking one over nine innings of work. Garza probably has a better chance of making the rotation to start the year, but Perkins may be next in line thanks to his aggressive pitching this spring and his brief stint in the majors last fall.