Wednesday, December 30, 2009

State of the Rotation

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.

22 comments:

Jim H said...

I agree with most of what you wrote. I think that Blackburn has higher upside than you or most people seem to think. I am not so sure that Perkins will get moved. I can't imagine that the Twins will give away a guy who has been pretty decent major league starter, when healthy. I also can't imagine anyone giving up much for him, given his injury history and headcase history.

You are right, I think the Twins would like a lefthander in the rotation. The Twins do seem to have some depth in starters if everyone is healthy and over whatever seemed to limit both Liriano and Perkins last year. While, I expect the Twins to go into spring training with the current cast, I wouldn't be surprised if the Twins weren't exploring the possibility of landing a high impact starter through trade.

sploorp said...

I'm confident that the 5 hole will be filled from within. Personally, I kind of like the idea of sticking the pitchers we have, then maybe making a trade at the deadline if need be.

I also don't see the team adding to the bullpen either.

I think the only real problem that needs addressing is the infield. Either a decent upgrade at 2nd or 3rd. Even better, upgrade both.

sploorp said...

Whoops! That should have read "sticking WITH the pitchers we have", not "sticking the pitchers we have".

Anonymous said...

just wondering -- if Perkins has reduced trade value right now because he's coming off an injury, could that actually help him land a spot in the rotation? He already has two things going for him, being a veteran and left-handed. If you give him the nod over the competition, and he does well, you can trade him for a lot more. If he tanks I guess you're stuck with him, but he's still useful in the bullpen.

Bryz said...

@ Anonymous: Good idea. Of course, you also run the risk that he pitches poorly and hurts his trade value even more...

I agree with everything you said, Nick. Duensing in the rotation and Liriano in the bullpen sounds pretty good. Make Liriano into a LOOGY and he should help the team, otherwise he can be the mop-up guy with Bobby Keppel (assuming he makes the team).

I should really start commenting here again!

Anonymous said...

I know this borders on the "Ramon Ortiz / Sidney Ponson" category however I would like the Twins to consider taking a flier on Ben Sheets for an incentive laden one year deal. Of course at this point in the free agent season, I am sure Sheets and his agent are looking for something better than that.

Other pitchers in the "for the right price" category I would have interest in.
Erik Bedard
Daniel Cabrera
Jon Garland
Mark Mulder
Mark Prior
Tim Redding
Chein-Ming Wang
Kip Wells

Disclaimer, I haven't looked close enough to see if any of these names have been snatched. Best case scenario is you can sign one of these guys to a minor league deal, and if he doesn't make it out of spring training send him to Rochester. (This of course would appease the Jim Mandelero's of the world. Close circuit to Jim, "Stop complaining about who the Twins have in AAA, it is low on the list of priorites.)

Loudjon

Nick N. said...

just wondering -- if Perkins has reduced trade value right now because he's coming off an injury, could that actually help him land a spot in the rotation?

If Perkins is still here, I'd guess that he's in the rotation on Opening Day. I'm just pretty skeptical of whether he'll be here.

Make Liriano into a LOOGY and he should help the team, otherwise he can be the mop-up guy with Bobby Keppel (assuming he makes the team).

Of course, Liriano opened the 2006 season in the bullpen and we all know how that worked out. Letting him gain some confidence during short relief stints might be the best route. I'd ultimately like to see him back in the rotation, though.

I know this borders on the "Ramon Ortiz / Sidney Ponson" category however I would like the Twins to consider taking a flier on Ben Sheets for an incentive laden one year deal.

Ben Sheets would be a lot different from Ortiz/Ponson in that such a signing would actually carry legitimate upside. I think the Twins would be very wise to take a flier on one of the guys you mentioned; they have enough depth that they wouldn't be crippled if the move didn't work out.

Breaker said...

Nick, I like your commentary here. I think you are pretty much spot on with your thoughts.

Regarding Liriano, I would love to see the Twins try him out in the bullpen, and potentially groom him to take over for Joe Nathan. Am I crazy, or is that a real option?

I'm not in the 'Trade Nathan!' camp because of his postseason meltdowns - he is easily one of the top 3 closer in the majors over the last five years, and I don't think that is going to change (at least not this year). But I do think it might make some sense, especially if we are struggling at the trade deadline. It seems that Nathan's salary is a real stumbling block for building a deep team (ie, an 'ace' starting pitcher, or actually having competent hitters on our bench).

Having $11 million to play with would give Bill Smith the opportunity (this year) to sign someone like Figgins or Beltre, or even a combination of Orlando Hudson & Rich Harden or Ben Sheets.

So, am I being crazy, or are those thoughts reasonable?

Christopher said...

I like how this starting rotation is shaping up. Nick is right though we don't have an ace. The way is see it Pavano is a solid middle of the rotation guy, along with Nick Blackburn. Baker and Slowey have a little more power and higher ceiling. They are solid #2 or #3 starters.
As for the fifth spot its a crapshoot. I like Duensing a lot, but he is so inexperienced, ya have to wonder how teams will hit him once they see him enough. Liriano, I want to see the 2006 version again so bad, but its not likely to happen. He is not mentally with it and despite what some folks have said, the end of 2008 wasn't that great of a run for him. He really hasn't been at all the same since TJ surgery.
Glen Perkins is yet another lefty option, but this guy is also not mentally strong and doesn't seem to have very strong stuff.
I think the Twins should move this glut of starting pitching for a 3rd or 2nd baseman. Sure we might be thin in the rotation for a few years, but we have Swarzak, Duensing, and eventually Bromberg & Gibson to fill the gap.

Ozzie Rules said...

Sorry Twins fan but compared to the White Sox rotation your starters look like minor leaguers. Get used to looking up at the Sox in the standings all summer. Sometimes the truth hurts. It must suck knowing the only chance you have for the playoffs is the wildcard and that ain't gonna happen.

Stephen said...

Ozzie rules.

You are correct the Twins don't have a chance won't win a game all year.

Anonymous said...

shouldn't be worried about filling the "5-hole." We already have 4 starters, none qualify higher than the 3-spot of any other team's rotation. We should worry about signing a pitcher with ace caliber stuff who maybe had an off year or an injury, but not Washburn.

Connor B said...

I think they should trade perkins and liriano for an ace like josh johnson if the marlins will give him up. We have tons of depth and perkins wont pitch for us anyways because of the grievance he filed and liriano still has potential. The twins also need to sign a 2b like lopez because casilla sucks.

Connor B said...

I think they should trade perkins and liriano for an ace like josh johnson if the marlins will give him up. We have tons of depth and perkins wont pitch for us anyways because of the grievance he filed and liriano still has potential. The twins also need to sign a 2b like lopez because casilla sucks.

Anonymous said...

As a White Sox fan, allow me to temper Ozzie Rules' comments a bit.

The Twins' rotation is above average, but certainly not as strong as the White Sox' first four of Peavy, Buerhle, Floyd, and Danks.

Morneau and Mauer are the great equalizers though, if they both stay healthy all year.

The key for the White Sox: getting production out of Carlos Quentin and Alex Rios.

The big questions for the Twins: 1)the bullpen, particularly with Nathan's confidence in doubt, and 2) how will they perform without one of the best home field advantages in the game after leaving the Metrodome?

Nick N. said...

Having $11 million to play with would give Bill Smith the opportunity (this year) to sign someone like Figgins or Beltre, or even a combination of Orlando Hudson & Rich Harden or Ben Sheets.

Having that extra flexibility would certainly be helpful, but I just can't see the Twins moving Nathan. Their bullpen is shrouded in too much doubt for that move to make sense. If we knew what to expect from Neshek and I was a little more confident in Guerrier and Mijares to repeat what they did last season, I might be a little more open to that idea.

I think they should trade perkins and liriano for an ace like josh johnson if the marlins will give him up.

That's not realistic.

The key for the White Sox: getting production out of Carlos Quentin and Alex Rios.

This is exactly right. The Sox have a very solid rotation and are shaping up as a legit contender, but they'll need some guys to step up on offense.

Anonymous said...

The Sox have a very solid rotation and are shaping up as a legit contender, but they'll need some guys to step up on offense.

This may be so in about 2 years. The Sox may have good pitching but they have zippo for defense. Seriously, who would want to have an infield of Teahen, Ramirez, Gordon, and Konerko and an outfield of Quentin, Rios, and Pierre?

There will be a lot of hits (or errors committed) in Chicago leading to runs, leading to a pitching staff who starts falling because they no longer can trust their defense. Also, the Sox offense is in question with aging veterans and only a few young players (Ramirez and Gordon).

neckrolls said...

Here are Liriano's numbers through 5 starts in the Dominican Winter League:

21.2 IP, 14 H, 2 ER, 0 HR, 4 BB, 27 K, 0.83 ERA, 0.83 WHIP

What level is the DWL equivalent to? AAA? AA? AA+? Obviously the hitters are beneath the major league standard, but you've still got to be encouraged by the K/BB ratio. Has anyone seen any scouting reports from down there? I'd love to know if they're noticing anything different in his velocity or delivery...

Luke in Mpls. said...

I find the idea that Nathan's not worth 10 million to the Twins next year sort of crazy. Here's Nathan's team rank in WARP3 for the last 6 years:

2009: 2nd
2008: 2
2007: 1
2006: 2
2005: 3
2004: 2

He's been the first, second, or third best player on this team every year for six years, but you want to trade him to get some salary flexibility? Who exactly are you going to get who will help this team more than losing Nathan will hurt?

Breaker said...

Luke,

Trading Nathan will definitely hurt if you don't have anyone to replace him. But closers are the most unusual of baseball players - there are a handful every year that are 'found'. Nathan is a perfect example of this - he had almost no saves when he came to the Twins. That's why you'll notice in my previous post that I wondered if Liriano could be groomed to replace him. Not saying he will or should, but could he?

WARP3 is great, but his ranking as one of the best 3 players on the team is as much a function of the Twins not having a deep team as it is of his dominance. Like I said, he has been a top 3 closer for at least the last five years, but who else besides Santana, Mauer and Morneau is going to rank as 'better than average' over that time period? Santana is gone, Kubel didn't really emerge until the second half of 2008, Cuddyer has battled injuries in 2007 & 2008... There aren't a whole lot of options to knock him out of the top three.

I think the biggest problem is, what are you going to be able to get for him? You can't trade a top flight closer and expect a MLB ready 2B or 3B in return. Who wants a top flight, top paid closer? Teams fighting for the playoffs. How many of them are willing to give up a player from their everyday lineup in return? Or have a super-stud prospect that they are willing to part with? Typical closer trades net three or four prospects, with maybe one of them being considered 'elite' and possibly one of them being 'near LB ready' - that doesn't help the Twins in their current situation - unless he were traded when his salary can be used to bring in solid free agent.

Looking at this year's free agents, I'd guess that Chone Figgins, Randy Wolf, Tim Hudson, Adrian Beltre, and Rich Harden would have the ability to rank in the Twins top three in WARP3 next season, and they all signed for less per season than the $11 million Nathan will make next year.

And Neckrolls,

Those Liriano stats are pretty hot. I don't follow the winter league, but is an average of just over 4 starts typical for starters? Or has he been used out of the bullpen as well?

neckrolls said...

Those are all starts - they eased him into things like in spring training.

Gardy apparently got a report that Liriano is "throwing the living fire out of the ball," with 92-94 mph heat. There's probably some hyperbole there, but a 27/4 K/BB suggests that however hard he's throwing, he's hitting his spots.

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