As the Twins seek to improve their ballclub during this offseason, one thing that you will hear discussed extensively is the possibility of one or more trades. After all, Bill Smith showed no aversion to blockbuster swaps during his first winter at the helm, swinging deals that shook up the very core of the Twins' organization and sent key players like Johan Santana, Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett elsewhere in return for unproven talent.
Over the next few months, you'll see numerous names floated around in connection with the Twins -- be it through blogs, newspapers, or sites like MLBtraderumors.com. These names will most likely be those of reportedly available players who could potentially fill a position of need for the Twins. We'll see left-side infielders such as Adrian Beltre, Garrett Atkins and J.J. Hardy mentioned, and probably also a number of relief pitchers. Inevitably, these rumors will suggest that the Twins part with pitching in order to acquire a player of this ilk.
The Twins featured a stable of five young starting pitchers this year, and these pitchers will likely be attractive to teams like the Brewers and the Mariners who could use some reliable young arms in their rotations. But the commonly held mindset that the Twins have an abundant wealth of young, major-league pitching from which they can deal is an outdated one. To me, it seems that many fans and analysts are still viewing the Twins as they did a few years ago, when the organization boasted a collection of impressive arms that included Johan Santana, Carlos Silva, Matt Garza, Kevin Slowey, Boof Bonser, Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker and Glen Perkins, among others. Yet, times have changed. Many of the pitchers mentioned in that group are gone, and much of the organization's high-level starting pitching depth no longer exists. The Twins have a group of five starting pitchers who performed well above expecations during this season (a group that shall henceforth be referred to as "The Fab 5"), but they don't have the depth behind these five that would make any member of the group expendable. In fact, the Twins' success next season may be dependent on their ability to keep this group intact.
Some people assume too easily that the Twins could simply replace the contributions of a Nick Blackburn or a Perkins by calling up a player from the minors or tabbing a short-term free agent. This simply isn't a good bet. We've already seen what happens when this club gambles on bargain free agent pitchers (which, realistically, is all they can afford) and relying on minor-league hurlers who lack any big-league experience is a flimsy plan. As an example, think about Garza and Slowey. Both were elite prospects who absolutely rolled through the minor leagues, but both struggled in their first taste of the big leagues. That's something that most young pitchers experience, as the transition from the minors to majors is a daunting one. This makes the success experienced this year by Blackburn and Perkins -- neither of whom had started a major-league game in the past -- all the more impressive. For both players to step in and perform at an above-average level for the majority of the season qualifies as a fantastic feat, but a rare one which cannot be counted on from lesser arms.
And lesser arms are what the Twins currently feature in Triple-A. In Philip Humber, Anthony Swarzak, Brian Duensing and Kevin Mulvey, the Twins have a group of prospects who may eventually turn into useful major-league pitchers, but who all have significant flaws and lack the top-prospect polish of Blackburn and Perkins, much less Garza and Slowey. To trade away a member of The Fab 5 and count on any of those four to fill the open spot would be a dangerous venture, especially considering that injuries and regression to any of the remaining rotation members could cause further complications and widdle away at the already weakened depth.
That last point is a crucially important one. It is incredibly rare for an entire rotation of make it through a full season without seeing at least one of its members miss significant time due to injury. The Twins were fortunate this year in that only minor injuries affected their starters and no one missed a large chunk of the season, but that can hardly be expected next season -- particularly considering the questions that still surround Liriano's arm and Perkins' history of shoulder problems. Even if they enter next season with The Fab 5 intact, the Twins will still likely have to delve into that Triple-A depth at some point due to injury or ineffectiveness at the top level, and by opening up a hole in the rotation the organization is forced to dig more and more into that uncertain group of minor-league maybes. This could spell disaster.
The Twins are in an enviable position with their rotation. They have five young pitchers who have all proven themselves capable of pitching at the major-league level and who are all under team control for at least another three years at relatively modest prices. The value of this situation is clear when you take a quick look around the league and see pitchers like Kyle Lohse and Carlos Silva inking $40 million contracts. It is important that the Twins maintain this advantage and hold together their reasonably priced stable of talented young arms. I wouldn't completely rule out the idea of trading a player like Blackburn or Perkins, but it would have to be for significant value. Giving up a member of this rotation for, say, one expensive season of Beltre just doesn't make sense from a fiscal or competitive standpoint.