Teams generally enter every season with a few question marks in the rotation. The Twins, unfortunately, look like they'll head into the 2012 campaign with five.
With each starter slated to occupy a spot in Minnesota's rotation, there is a fair amount of upside and also significant downside. At this point there's no way to know which versions of these various Jekyll-and-Hyde acts we'll be seeing, so all we can do is hope that the Twins can come up heads more often than tails as they seek to improve on a league-worst pitching performance in 2011.
Carl Pavano has officially been tabbed as Opening Day starter – an honor that he's earned since he's the only member of this unit who threw more than 150 innings last year. In 2010 he was a highly effective innings-eater and arguably the most valuable starter on a 94-win team. Last year his results were thoroughly mediocre as he allowed more hits than any other pitcher in the league.
Heads, he remembers how to miss a few extra bats and returns to the form he showed while winning 17 games two years ago. Tails, his performance continues to descend as he ages into his late 30s.
Francisco Liriano was stellar in 2010, picking up Cy Young votes while striking out 200 hitters and earning a Game 1 ALDS start. Last year his ERA never dropped below 4.59 as he battled injuries and control issues that plagued him right up until the end of the campaign.
Heads, he regains his fastball command and helps power the top of a solid rotation. Tails, the problems that haunted him in 2011 remain present, leading to continued inconsistency and frustration before the non-competitive Twins trade him for peanuts at the deadline.
Scott Baker is the only member of this bunch who actually took care of business in 2011, and naturally his season was cut short by persisting elbow problems. Though his first-half success made him a borderline All-Star, he threw only 24 innings after the break.
Heads, Baker finally shrugs off the arm troubles that have plagued him intermittently throughout the past two seasons to pile up 200 frames for the first time since 2009. Tails, his elbow keeps on barking and limits him once again, perhaps leading to surgery.
Nick Blackburn has been a reliable, mid-rotation workhorse when healthy, hurling 400 innings with a 4.04 ERA between 2008 and 2009. Sadly, he hasn't been able to stay healthy since, and recently underwent arm surgery for a second consecutive offseason.
Heads, Blackburn overcomes his flaws and serves as an average, yet valuable, anchor in the No. 4 spot. Tails, the hits keep on coming and he struggles to another shortened and substandard campaign.
Finally, Jason Marquis is the newcomer in this equation. If he repeated his 4.43 ERA posted with the Nats last year, he'd be a decent enough fifth starter. But a 4.55 ERA and 1.43 WHIP over the course of a career that's been spent entirely in the inferior NL don't bode well.
Heads, Marquis proves to be a serviceable piece at the end of the rotation, perhaps until a better option emerges in the minors. Tails, he follows the path of former bargain bin veterans like Ramon Ortiz, Sidney Ponson and Livan Hernandez, dropping before the season's halfway through.
It's not often that you see someone flip heads five times in a row, but it happens, and if these five could live up to their potential the Twins would boast a very respectable starting corps.
Unfortunately, these coins appear to be weighted, and not in a good way. Pavano is in the twilight of his career. Liriano had a discouraging run in winter ball. Baker hasn't really been healthy since '09, and neither has Blackburn. Marquis just ain't very good.
I rue the thought of the Twins pitching staff giving up 800-plus runs again this year, and I'm holding out hope that they can turn things around drastically. Given the talent present, it's certain possible.
But I wouldn't bet on those odds. Would you?