What are the Twins doing with their Rotation?

What are the Twins Thinking?

The Minnesota Twins over the past few years have established themselves as a model small market franchise, competing consistently in the playoffs (though they’ve yet to solve the Yankees in October) while moving into their beautiful new (outdoor) home at Target Field. Their success has been attributable largely to an outstanding draft and player development system, plus a healthy dose of hometown hero Joe Mauer whom is now locked up for the rest of the decade.

Despite the track record of success, however, this spring the Twins apparently are looking for ways to lose what promises to be an ultra-competitive AL Central. Baseball Prospectus basically predicts a dead heat amongst the Twins, White Sox and Tigers, so the difference of a game or two may be the difference between playoffs and home for October.

With the Tigers and White Sox upgrading their rosters during the offseason, the Twins not only stood pat, they now seem insistent on minimizing their current resources with little or no explanation. Their Starting rotation is anchored by Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano, but there are four other options for three spots. Manager Ron Gardenhire has already announced that Brian Duensing will be in the rotation, and rumors surrounding Kevin Slowey have the right hander linked to talks with the Yankees, Blue Jays and Cardinals.

The tables below show the 2009 and 2010 stats for the 4 pitchers in question. Though only two years worth of data, some fairly solid conclusions can be drawn:

 

2009 IP K/9 BB/9 HR/FB xFIP WAR
Baker 200 7.29 2.16 9.70% 4.22 3.5
Blackburn 205.2 4.29 1.79 9.40% 4.56 3.0
Duensing 84 5.68 3.32 6.60% 4.77 1.1
Slowey 90.2 7.44 1.49 10.60% 4.23 1.4
2010 IP K/9 BB/9 HR/FB xFIP WAR
Baker 170.1 7.82 2.27 10.20% 4.02 2.5
Blackburn 161 3.8 2.24 13.50% 4.62 0.4
Duensing 130.2 5.37 2.41 8.50% 4.10 1.7
Slowey 155.2 6.71 1.68 8.20% 4.48 2.2

 

First, Scott Baker is far and away the best pitcher of this bunch. He misses the most bats, has good control, and has posted consistent peripheral numbers over both years. Posting 6 WAR over the two seasons is not all-star material, but certainly is not the pedigree of a 30 year old fighting for a spot in the Twins rotation The next most obvious conclusion is that Nick Blackburn is by far the worst of this group – his K/9 is the WORST of any starter having thrown over the past 2 seasons with at least 200 innings pitched. Not even Target field could keep a significant enough number of the big flies he allows in the park.

As for the other two, Slowey exhibits good control albeit with a strikeout rate that declined significantly in 2010 and ever present questions about his durability. Healthy, he easily is a 2.5 to 3 WAR pitcher for the Twins. Duensing has spent 2009 and 2010 as a middle reliever and spot starter and posted two consecutive years outperforming his xFIP numbers – in 2010 buoyed by a strand rate that exceeded 80% despite a K/9 rate under 5.5. It is hard to imagine him posting an ERA below 4.25 without some significantly good luck.

Of course, our analysis cannot be conducted in a vacuum. The table below shows each pitchers age and contract status over the next few years:

 

Age 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015

Baker

29

$5M

$6.5M

$9.25M Cl Opt

FA

FA

Slowey

29

$2.7M

Arb2

Arb3

FA

FA

Duensing

28

$0.417M

Arb 1

Arb 2

Arb 3

Blackburn

26

$3M

$4.75M

$5.5M

$8M Cl Opt

FA

 

Not only is Baker the best pitcher, but he is under team control through 2012, and the Twins hold a reasonable option for 2013 presuming he stays anywhere near his current level of production. Duensing obviously is cheap for the foreseeable future, but probably hasn’t produced enough to warrant extending. As a 5th starter, Duensing certainly deserves a look over Blackburn, based both on performance and finances.

Nick Blackburn’s contract is bad, though not disastrously so because there is only $10M committed over the next two years – though his peripherals don’t offer much to excite potential trade partners. Concerns about Slowey’s durability may counsel toward taking him to arbitration after the 2011 season. Because he has two more seasons before hitting free agency agency, Slowey would appear to offer the greatest value in a trade (health concerns aside) – however, dropping Slowey out of the rotation in favor of either Duensing or Blackburn will cost the Twins 1-2 wins, which may just be the difference between postseason and offseason. Slowey’s next two arbitration years also offer the small market Twins a cost-effective option at below market rates for two years with little risk to the budget. The Twins need to banish Nick Blackburn to middle relief, or pawn him off on a big market team that’s willing to take a chance on an innings eater that comes relatively cheap.

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About Bill Porter

Bill is an aspiring sportswriter (attorney by day) born in Washington DC, raised in New York, and currently living in San Francisco with his wife Kirsten and two spazzy labs, Fletch and Bear. Follow me on Twitter at @wfporter1972
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