Back in grade school, the game of musical chairs seemed like good, innocent fun. Little did we know that it was actually designed to prepare us for the harsh realities of the world. Oftentimes in life, there are only a limited number of spots available, and when the music stops, it sucks to be the last one standing.
Several starting pitchers for the Twins will enter spring training in a musical chairs mindset this year. The signing of Carl Pavano creates a logjam in the rotation, with six viable candidates and only five spots available. We're safe in assuming that Pavano and Francisco Liriano are guaranteed spots. We're also safe, I think, in assuming that Scott Baker is guaranteed a spot -- he's been a relatively durable and effective arm in each of the past three years, throwing 170-plus innings in each with an ERA never exceeding 4.50.
One can argue that top prospect Kyle Gibson has a shot at earning a job, but I can't see that happening unless an injury or two strikes; there's simply no reason to start his arbitration clock unless pushed by necessity. So it comes down to Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing and Kevin Slowey competing for the two remaining spots.
Each hurler can make a good case for himself.
Blackburn was the most stable force in the rotation over the 2008 and '09 seasons. He averaged 200 quality innings, and the Twins rewarded that performance with a four-year contract last spring. After signing the new deal, however, Blackburn's contact-happy pitching style began to catch up with him, and he found himself demoted to Triple-A in July. Late in the year, he returned to the big-league rotation and pitched effectively, earning himself a spot in the playoff rotation (though his turn never came).
Duensing stepped into the rotation in 2009 and made a crucial contribution down the stretch, helping propel the Twins to a postseason berth. Last year, he once again played a significant role in the team's success, moving from the bullpen to the rotation when Blackburn's struggles created an opening in July and posting stellar numbers as a starter down the stretch. In 23 career major-league starts, Duensing is 12-3 with a 2.93 ERA.
Slowey pretty clearly has the best stuff and upside of the three, but he has also experienced the least success over the past couple years. A wrist injury limited him to 90 innings in 2009, and last year his production was suppressed by injuries and stamina issues, to the degree that he was left off the postseason roster. However, Slowey is the youngest and he's the only one with a sustainable recipe for success; Duensing's performance last year was propped up by a virtually unrepeatable .270 BABIP and Blackburn will always be heavily dependent on luck and defense. Slowey has a historically great strikeout-to-walk ratio and was flat-out dominant at every level in the minors.
My guess is that, barring a truly awful performance in spring training, Blackburn can stake his claim to one of the rotation spots in question. His greatest value is in his durability (team-leading 92 starts over the past three years), which I believe is the chief reason he got a long-term contract a year ago. He also doesn't offer much as a bullpen arm, and I suspect that is why, following his demotion to bullpen last year, he was sent to the minors after only two relief appearances to keep his arm in starting shape.
If I'm correct in that presumption, we'll be looking at a spring battle between Duensing and Slowey for the fifth and final spot. My opinion right now is that Duensing should be the odd man out. That's not so much an indictment of the left-hander as an acknowledgment that, among all three candidates, he's the only one with any history of success as a reliever. Before moving to the rotation last season, Duensing had registered a 1.67 ERA and held opponents to a .591 OPS in 39 appearances out of the bullpen. Outside of Matt Capps and Jose Mijares, the Twins are short on relief candidates with recent major-league success, so Duensing and his experience would be a vital addition.
Beyond being more well-suited to pitch in relief, Duensing is due for some serious regression as a starting pitcher. His 2.93 big-league ERA as a starter dwarfs his 4.00 mark in Triple-A, and despite his outstanding poise his stuff just isn't very good. This was on display when he failed to induce a single swinging strike in his ALDS start against the Yankees -- a stat I just can't get out of my head.
Eventually, mediocre stuff catches up with you. Look no further than Blackburn's 2010 campaign as evidence. That doesn't mean Duensing is going to suddenly turn into a pumpkin -- and it does help that he throws with his left hand -- but he's much more likely to be the team's fifth (or sixth) best starter this year than their third-best, as some people seem to view him.
I can see the argument for the other side. Certainly Duensing has done enough over the past two years to earn a rotation spot on merit, and given Slowey's stamina issues it's not hard to see his stuff playing better out of the bullpen. The difference-maker for me is Duensing's experience as a reliever, and the fact that -- much like the last two years -- he'll be ready to step into the rotation when things go south. If healthy, Slowey could easily recapture his 2008 form and become a legitimate top-end starter, while Duensing would have to rely on continuing to outperform his underwhelming peripheral numbers (against lineups stacked with righties, against whom he is extremely vulnerable in comparison to lefties) in order to achieve that kind of success.
Duensing has been there when the Twins have needed him over the past two years, and he's played an underrated role in their back-to-back division titles. He's shown an uncanny ability to step up and perform in whatever role he's asked, and that's all the more reason for him to open the season in the bullpen, where his dominance against lefty hitters can be fully utilized. Without a doubt, the Twins will need an extra starter at some point, and when that time comes, Duensing will hopefully be ready to step in with added confidence. Just like last year.