Throughout the offseason, I repeatedly pointed to Kevin Slowey and Francisco Liriano as wild cards for the Twins rotation. The starting staff entered the season as the team's most glaring potential weakness, given that the Twins ranked 12th out of 14 AL teams in 2009 with a 4.84 starters' ERA and added no new pieces to the rotation from the end of last year to the start of this year. Yet, Slowey and Liriano -- who both had their '09 campaigns muddled by arm issues -- each had the ability to help turn around the fortunes of the Twins' rotation by simply bouncing back with healthy, productive seasons.
Slowey and Liriano have both given plenty of reason to believe they can develop into top-end starters. Slowey stampeded through the minors, posting a 1.94 ERA and 0.85 WHIP across five levels of competition before reaching the majors just two years after being drafted out of Winthrop University. He put in his first full big-league season in 2008, posting a 3.99 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 123-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 160 1/3 innings as a 24-year-old. Meanwhile, Liriano had blossomed into a top prospect after being acquired from the Giants in the A.J. Pierzynski trade, and when he joined the big-league ranks full-time in 2006 he was an unstoppable force, going 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 144-to-32 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 121 innings.
Yet, Slowey and Liriano both entered this season with big question marks hanging over their heads. Liriano had seen his meteoric rise in 2006 come to an abrupt halt when his elbow gave out, forcing him to undergo Tommy John surgery. He missed the entire '07 campaign and spent both of the past two years struggling to rediscover his command and velocity. Between those two campaigns, Liriano battled confidence problems while going 11-17 with a 5.12 ERA and 1.49 WHIP -- ugly numbers for the former phenom. Slowey ran into his own issues last year, as he posted disappointing numbers over his first 16 starts before succumbing to a painful wrist that ultimately required season-ending surgery. The right-hander had screws implanted in his pitching wrist, and it was unclear whether the operation would take a toll on his pinpoint command.
With Liriano looking to rebound from a lost season that had many questioning whether he'd ever be able to consistently throw the ball over the plate again and Slowey seeking to prove that his wrist surgery was but a bump in the road, this 2010 season loomed large for both starters, particularly given the hefty expectations being placed on his Twins team. Fortunately, positive signs began to emerge early for both pitchers. Liriano dominated the Dominican Winter League, garnering rave reviews and causing many analysts to declare he was back to form. The southpaw continued to impress in spring training, easily locking up the fifth spot in the Twins rotation by showing solid command of his mid-90s fastball while cruising to a 2.70 ERA and 30-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 20 innings of work. Slowey was equally sharp, posting a 1.95 ERA and 20-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his 27 frames.
Of course, those encouraging signs don't mean a whole lot unless they are carried into the regular season, and thus far Liriano and Slowey have both been able to follow through. This was most evident over the last two nights, when both pitchers thoroughly dismantled the Indians at Target Field. Each hurler rattled off eight scoreless frames, and they both did it in their own signature style. Slowey outwitted opposing hitters by working all around the strike zone and painting the corners of the plate. Liriano whipped his hard fastball and darting slider into the bottom part of the zone, inducing whiffs and ground balls. Neither pitcher gave Cleveland's lineup a chance to breathe. In short, both pitched like aces.
Of course, one home start against a relatively weak lineup does not immediately vault either pitcher to elite status. But, in combination with all the promising signs they've given us leading up to this point, these outings from Slowey and Liriano are bound to boost enthusiasm among MLB betting fans starving for a true ace. And while neither pitcher is a sure bet to fill the void that continues to exist in the absence of Santana, both seem poised to go from question marks to exclamation points.