Last June, some friends and I made a baseball road trip and one of our stops was St. Louis to see the Twins play the Cardinals in a Saturday afternoon contest. It was a sweltering hot day, with a heat index well over 100 degrees, and the sweat soaking into our clothes subtracted somewhat from our enjoyment of the beautiful Busch Stadium. Perhaps the most uncomfortable aspect of the day, though, was watching Kevin Slowey struggle against the Cards lineup.
Slowey had entered the game on a roll, having posted a Quality Start in seven of his past eight outings while starting to look like a top-of-the-rotation stalwart. Yet, in his last turn he'd issued four walks -- most since his fourth major-league start back in 2007 -- and on this day something was clearly amiss. Slowey, who typically places all his pitches with exceptional precision, was missing his spots often and offering up far too many hittable pitches. He needed 58 pitches to get through three innings, during which he allowed six hits, including a pair of homers to Albert Pujols. Ron Gardenhire did not send Slowey out for the fourth. The right-hander would go on to make one more start, another three-inning dud against the Tigers, and then his season was done. After an unsuccessful rehab stint, Slowey underwent wrist surgery in early August, seeking to finally solve a problem that had been bothering him since he was hit by a line drive late in the '08 season, and began planning his return for the 2009 season.
The Twins' rotation struggled to replace Slowey's production until the team traded for Carl Pavano, who essentially performed like a Slowey clone following his arrival. Now, the hope is that the Twins' rotation can flourish with both Pavano and Slowey present to complement Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and whoever ends up in the fifth slot. With a well constructed lineup and a relatively deep bullpen, the Twins seem poised for success this year but the rotation remains a concern and much depends on Slowey's ability to prove that his wrist is completely healed. Despite the lengthy recovery time, that isn't a given.
Gardenhire mentioned in January that Slowey had experienced some swelling in that right wrist during the offseason. The team, naturally, downplayed the magnitude of this concern but we all know how these things can go. Should Slowey's wrist continue to be a problem, not only would it take away one of the club's only pitchers realistically capable of blossoming a legitimate frontline starter, it could force them to lean on unproven players like Anthony Swarzak and Jeff Manship in his stead.
If Slowey's wrist is fully healed, he's a prime candidate for a breakout year. His career MLB numbers up to this point are hardly overwhelming, but he's only 25 and is reaching the point in his career where many younger pitchers turn the corner. Slowey combines elite command with a legitimate ability to miss bats, a combination which led to incredible success during his minor-league career. If he can cut down on the hits allowed and make that recipe work a little better in the majors, there's no reason he can't build upon the success he found in 2008 and turn into one of the American League's better starting pitchers.