On Monday, I wrote about the Twins' search for pitching help, pointing out that an inability to miss bats was a huge weakness for the staff in 2011 -- one which Terry Ryan should seek to remedy.
It's not realistic to expect the Twins to add a dominant strikeout machine to the mix, because there really aren't any available in free agency and acquiring one through trade would prove too costly.
But that doesn't mean they need to settle for someone like Jeff Francis or Jon Garland, who would qualify as the exact opposite of a "strikeout machine." Between Carl Pavano, Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing, Anthony Swarzak and Terry Doyle, the Twins have plenty of rotation candidates who can take the mound, throw the ball over the plate and let opposing hitters put it in play.
If they want to beef up their rotation rather than simply crowding it with more of the same, they'll need to identify at least one arm that breaks the pitch-to-contact mold. Here are a few available options that intrigue me:
Jackson is a power arm in the sense that he throws hard, with a fastball that averages almost 95 mph and a slider in the upper 80s, but his results have never matched his high-velocity stuff. This past season, Jackson notched 148 strikeouts in 199 2/3 innings -- good for a 6.7 K/9 rate that matches his career mark and is roughly average.
With that being said, an average strikeout rate would stand out among Minnesota's crop of starters, and the 28-year-old has averaged 200 innings over the past four seasons. He's the cream of the remaining FA crop, but may elude the Twins' price range unless they're willing to push closer to $110 million.
I mentioned Harden in Monday's post as a prime example of a high-risk, high-reward arm that could fit into a ~$100 million budget. He's got an electric arm, and this year with the A's was able to tally 91 strikeouts in 82 2/3 innings, but injuries have been a constant issue for the right-hander. He signed with Oakland last winter to a one-year deal worth $1.5 million plus incentives; there would be plenty of wisdom in offering a similar contract this year.
Harden is still only 30 years old, and if he can find a way to stay healthy he's got huge upside, especially in Target Field. If he'd be willing, a switch to the bullpen is an option that might aid his durability, and would solve the club's need for a hard-throwing right-hander in the late innings.
While playing for the Marlins this past season, Vazquez made it sound like he was dead-set on retiring at the end of the year. By November, he appeared to have softened his stance, telling Ken Rosenthal that he was "50-50" on playing again in 2012.
Luring the 35-year-old righty back for another year might be a tall task, especially in Minnesota as Rosenthal noted that Vazquez had a strong preference to remain on the East Coast if he hung around. If the Twins could make it happen, though, there's tons of appeal in a guy who has averaged 8 K/9 over the course of this career and turned in a 3.69 ERA and 1.18 WHIP over 192 2/3 innings with Florida in 2011.
It's not clear whether Kuroda intends to play in the majors next year or return to Japan. There's been little buzz surrounding the free agent right-hander, and the Diamondbacks reportedly had an offer to him on the table for over 10 days before moving on and signing Jason Kubel earlier this week.
Kuroda has been consistently effective over his four-year major league career, accumulating a 3.45 ERA and 1.19 WHIP. In 2011, he set career bests with a 3.07 ERA in 202 innings. He also averaged over seven strikeouts per nine frames for a second straight year. He'll turn 37 in February, but if he's willing to sign a one-year deal, Kuroda would be a good addition at almost any price.
Unlike the four hurlers mentioned above, Niese is not a free agent. There have been rumblings that the Mets could make him available in a trade, though, and if that's the case, the Twins would be wise to make a push.
Niese is 25, and 2012 will be his first year of arbitration eligibility. Although his 4.39 career ERA appears rather mediocre on the surface, Niese is a left-hander who can command the strike zone, miss bats and induce ground balls. Given that the Twins are in a state of flux with their roster, I'm against the notion of trading valuable assets for short-term help, but Niese could be a long-term building block and would justify the cost as long as it's not exorbitant.