Friday, January 21, 2011

What to do with the starting pitching surplus

At the beginning of December, reports emerged that the Yankees had come calling to gauge the Twins interest in trading Francisco Liriano. According to the New York Post’s Joel Sherman, the organization’s response was, to paraphrase, “Ah, no.”
For obvious reasons, Francisco Liriano will be a fixture in the Twins rotation. While some might misguidedly question his ace status, Liriano remains, bar none, the best pitcher on the staff. It’s hard to argue that the top five finisher of all pitchers in the categories of strikeouts per nine innings (9.44, fifth-best), home runs allowed per nine innings (0.42, fourth-lowest) and the fielding-independent pitching metric (2.66, third-best) is somehow not the best on his own team’s rotation. With an infusion of luck and defense in 2011 to accessorize his domination, Liriano could easily be a contender for next year’s Cy Young Award.
Meanwhile, Sherman continued by saying:
“The Twins would, however, consider trading strike-thrower Kevin Slowey, especially if they are able to re-sign free agent Carl Pavano.”
Fast-forward a month later and suddenly the Twins have been able to re-sign Pavano, giving them six starting pitchers and only five rotational spots. Even Bert Blyleven’s California math would be able tell him that there are one too many starting pitchers - either someone has to move to the bullpen or someone will be shopped.
While it is very plausible that the team may choose to reassign one of their starters to the relief staff, it is just as likely that they may look to improve other areas of the roster by trading from their surplus, and the suddenly expendable Slowey could be on the move.
Slowey has built a strong pedigree in the minor leagues – succeeding with precision and guile despite college-level velocity - and has performed adequately in Minnesota. This unparalleled control has been one of the best in the game. Since 2008, Slowey’s 4.62 strikeouts-to-walks ratio has been the fourth-best behind only Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and the retired Mike Mussina. Nevertheless, after taking a Juan Uribe liner off of his wrist in 2008 which sidelined him for a couple weeks, the pain persisted in 2009 and eventually led to surgery. The outcome was the installation of two permanent screws in his throwing wrist.
This past spring, Slowey told reporters in Florida that his wrist had an entirely new sensation and that he wasn’t sure if he would ever feel the same again. By May, Slowey clearly appeared to be a different pitcher as all his pitches lacked the movement he demonstrated in the past. In his first eight starts, Slowey failed to complete six innings in all of his starts except for one, drawing criticism from his manager that he was trying to be too fine and nibbled around the plate instead of attacking the strike zone.
Even though he continued to rack up wins through July, thanks to his offense which eventually scored him 6.24 runs per nine innings in 2010, which masked his overall shoddy performance, Slowey continued to have troubles getting movement on his pitches.
Had the surgery been a simple clean-up of bone chips, I’d likely to chalk the decreased movement up to Slowey attempting to regain his feel for his pitches after the hiatus beginning in 2009. However, with two permanent screws it definitely raises the possibility of influencing the structural integrity of his wrist mechanics, impeding him from gaining the same action he had on his pitches before the surgery.
Perhaps the Twins viewed it as the same way. At July’s trade deadline, Slowey’s name was often cited as a potential candidate to be on the move. According to some reports, the right-hander was being offered to the Mariners as part of a potential Cliff Lee trade.
Obviously, the Cliff Lee trade never materialized, but Seattle’s interest in Slowey is very understandable. As a team with rangy, fly-catching outfielders, combined with a particularly pitcher-friendly ballpark in Safeco, Slowey’s fly ball tendencies would thrive in the Northwest. So it is entirely possible that Seattle could rekindle their interest in the relatively young and inexpensive starter.
Likewise, as Howard Sinker suggested yesterday, the Yankees may also be a potential suitor for Kevin Slowey. Per Sinker’s proposal, the Twins would send Slowey to New York and would receive the talented yet disenfranchised pitcher in Joba Chamberlain. Chamberlain, who has a lively arm that hits 95-mph and a very good slider that has kept right-handed opponents off-balance, has had numerous issues with his development and appears to have fallen out of favor with the Yankees. In addition to gaining a solid bullpen arm, the Twins would also save approximately $1 million in the process.
While in theory the Yankees are in desperate need of some rotation help to follow CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Phil Hughes, Slowey doesn’t appear to be a great fit in New York. As a right-hander hurler with high contact and ridiculously high fly ball tendencies that short right field porch would be tested regularly against the AL East’s squadron of hard-hitting left-handed sluggers. Then again, Hughes had one of the highest fly ball tendencies in the AL but like Slowey, he too was also saved by his offense that obliterated opponents and led the league in run support, resulting in the emptiest 18-win season in a long time.
To be sure, the Twins would probably benefit more by holding on to all of their six starting pitcher through the first few months of the season, preserving an insurance policy in the event of an injury. Also, by moving to the ‘pen, the Twins can limit Slowey to see opposing batters just one time through the order, a historical strong suit for him as hitters have shown the propensity to hit him harder in their subsequent match-ups. At the same time, don’t be surprised if the front office flips Slowey in efforts to improve the roster and save a few dollars in the process.