With 45 games in the books, we're now more than a quarter of the way through the 2008 season, so it seems like a good time to step back and look at how the team is doing as a whole. Today I'll run down the pitching staff, and tomorrow I'll dissect the offense.
The Twins rotation took some major hits in the offseason with the losses of Johan Santana, Matt Garza and Carlos Silva. Yet, with solid youngsters available to fill the gaps left behind by these valuable starters along with a bullpen that remained almost totally intact, the Twins still were deemed by many to have at least an average staff overall. Thus far, they've essentially lived up to that billing, having entered last night's game with a 4.11 team ERA that ranked them seventh in the American League and 13th in the majors.
The rotation has not been a real strength thus far -- Twins starters have combined for a 4.61 ERA to rank 12th among 14 AL clubs. I'd say that this unit is due for some improvement, since Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey -- arguably the team's two best starters -- have both been nagged by injuries and haven't been able to settle in. Also, as I mentioned on Friday, Boof Bonser's ERA has been inflated due to some bad luck and is likely to start coming down. I think it's reasonable to expect that Nick Blackburn can hang with an ERA in the low 4's, and while Livan Hernandez is probably due for a few rocky starts, I think it's safe to say he's not nearly in as far over head as Ramon Ortiz was last April.
I suspect Slowey and Bonser will both hit a groove and start rattling off some solid starts, so once the Twins get back Baker (who is, in my mind, the closest thing to an ace on this roster when healthy), I think the Twins will sport a pretty good rotation with an ERA that should gravitate back toward the middle of the pack. The emergence of Glen Perkins as a strong option only adds to this team's impressive starting pitching depth. (Two walks in 16 1/3 IP? Wha?!) Plus, if the team experiences any further injuries or any of the current starters spin out of control, it seems that Francisco Liriano is making some real progress down in Rochester. After allowing just three runs and one walk over eight efficient innings last Thursday, Liriano tossed seven innings of two-run ball against Syracuse yesterday, issuing just one walk while throwing 62 of his 91 pitches for strikes. He managed only three strikeouts and allowed eight hits (all singles), but the fact that he's getting the ball in the zone and avoiding long, drawn-out innings is extremely encouraging.
The bullpen picture isn't quite as promising, but still not terribly alarming. The Twins bullpen entered last night's game with a 3.18 ERA to rank first in the AL and third in the majors. This success has been due in large part to 18 stellar innings from Joe Nathan, along with reliable work from Matt Guerrier and Dennys Reyes. Juan Rincon and Jesse Crain have been frustrating to watch at times thanks to their shaky control (the two have combined for 22 walks in 33 innings), but thus far they've managed to limit hits and runs while posting decent strikeout rates, so the earned run averages haven't been bad (3.63 for Rincon; 4.02 for Crain). Bobby Korecky has certainly held his own thus far, and of course had a huge outing on Monday night which will hopefully allow him to build some confidence going forward.
It's great to see the bullpen so successful up to this point, but you have to wonder how long they can continue at this rate. If Rincon and Crain don't both significantly improve their control, it's only a matter of time before these walks start to haunt them. We've seen over the past few series how much it hurts to not have Pat Neshek in the equation -- Ron Gardenhire is forced to go to unreliable relievers in key situations, and to use Reyes against right-handed hitters (who have been quite successful against him thus far).
If the Twins end up finding themselves in need of bullpen help, there aren't any Nesheks sitting in the minors who look like sure things to come up and dominate immediately. Yet, there are a few guys down in Rochester with the potential to step in and contribute. I mentioned Tim Lahey yesterday as a sizable right-hander who is racking up impressive strikeout totals out of the Red Wings bullpen. Another right-hander who could be called upon is Julio DePaula, a 25-year-old who struggled during his stint with the Twins last year but has posted a 3.42 ERA while holding Triple-A hitters a .198 batting average this season (then again, he's also issued 17 walks in 26 innings, so he might not be the control upgrade the Twins are looking for over Rincon and Crain). Left-handers Mariano Gomez and Ricky Barrett have both pitched well for Rochester, and both have had some success against right-handers, so either one could serve as a potential option.
The loss of Neshek leaves the Twins short on dominating relievers, and I doubt we'll see this unit rank at the top of the league for too much longer, but between the major-league and Triple-A rosters, there is a wide assortment of serviceable arms. The bullpen should be just fine.
Overall, the Twins pitching staff ranks right in the middle of the league and my guess is that they'll hang there for much of the season. If a few things shake out right and the staff can mostly avoid further injuries, there's a decent chance we'll see this unit ranked solidly in the top half of the AL by the halfway point in the season. That might be enough to keep the Twins near the top of the AL Central, but these pitchers will need some help from the offense in order for that to happen. More on that tomorrow.