It goes without saying that the starting rotation was one of the most disappointing units on the Twins last season. After the upstart and inexperienced group of young hurlers had come together and helped carry the team to the brink of a postseason berth in 2008, many expected only better things in '09 as the five matured and learned from experience.
Unfortunately, things didn't go as planned. Injuries and ineffectiveness derailed the rotation this past season, and ultimately starting pitching was one of the club's biggest flaws for much of the year as the Twins struggled to stay above the .500 mark.
This big drop-off left many fans yearning for Bill Smith to make meaningful improvements to the starting pitching corps during the offseason; yet, as we prepare to flip our calendars to the new year, the Twins' GM has not made one single external addition at the position. In fact, so far all he's done is remove starting pitching depth, dealing away a potential starting option in Boof Bonser.
Nevertheless, the Twins seem relatively well positioned in the rotation as we look forward to the upcoming season. One key move that Smith did make was offering Carl Pavano arbitration. Failing to find intriguing offers on the free agent market, Pavano and his agent decided to accept the offer, thus ensuring that the August acquisition will figure into the team's plans next year.
With Pavano locked up and Kevin Slowey ready to return from a wrist injury that cost him much of his '09 season, we essentially know how the top four spots in the Twins' rotation are going to shape up:
1. Scott Baker
2. Kevin Slowey
3. Carl Pavano
4. Nick Blackburn
It's not a bad top four. Baker, Slowey and Pavano all basically fall into the same mold: strike-throwing right-handers who post respectable K-rate and are extremely stingy with walks, but will generally allow a fairly high number of hits and homers. Those are good guys to have around, and any one of them is capable of posting a sub-4 ERA, but none are particularly likely to be an ace-caliber performer. And if the hit or home run rates get out of hand for any of them, they could be in for a tough year. Of the three, Slowey likely has the greatest upside given his youth, his outstanding K/BB ratios and his spectacular minor-league track record, but he was inconsistent last year even before going down with an injury so he has much to prove. Blackburn, of course, is a high-contact middle-of-the-rotation guy who has held his own through two big-league seasons but lacks significant upside.
With those four in place, the Twins are left with one spot to fill. While it's conceivable that Smith could go out and find another starter via free agency or trade, it seems somewhat unlikely at this point. The Twins have a handful of guys who could compete for the last spot in the rotation, but given that the four already in place are all right-handed I suspect they'll look to fill that final slot with a southpaw. There are currently three main contenders: Francisco Liriano, Glen Perkins and Brian Duensing.
It is widely believed that Perkins will be moved before this offseason is over, and I'm inclined to agree with that train of thought. Duensing became a crucial contributor down the stretch last year after stepping into a starting role, which likely gives him the advantage over Liriano, who struggled all year long. Of course, considering that none of the four right-handers already entrenched seem to have legitimate top-end potential (with the possible exception of Slowey), Liriano remains an intriguing option since he was throwing like an ace as recently as the second half of 2008.
Right now it seems most likely that the Twins will enter spring training with an open competition for that fifth spot. Liriano and Duensing are shaping up as the main contenders, but if Perkins is still around he'd certainly be in the mix and if the Twins decide they don't care about having a southpaw in the rotation then Anthony Swarzak and Jeff Manship could have a shot as well. If I had to guess right now, I'd say that Duensing will probably open the season in the rotation with Liriano in the bullpen and the rest in the minors (or another organization). But spring training is still a long ways off and there's plenty of time for Smith and the Twins to try and add more clarity to what currently looks like a jumbled picture at the bottom of the rotation.