Friday, November 18, 2011

What is the plan for the rotation?

Baseball’s GMs have invaded Milwaukee and the game’s roster-creators are undoubtedly using the time to discuss impactful deals presumably in-between stops at the Miller Brewery tour and the Harley Davidson factory.
On Wednesday Twins’ general manager Terry Ryan checked in from Wisconsin with Tom Pelissero and Phil Mackey for 1500ESPN’s Talkin’ Twins feature and illuminated the locals on his thoughts towards his 2012 roster construction. When asked about the plans for the starting rotation and whether it would be different from the previous season, Ryan said:
“Hopefully not too different, except for those guys will be out there for 30 starts.”
Cue the sad trombone.
For most fans, this was likely a concerning statement. After all, the starting rotation was infirmed for a substantial part of the season and what did wind up pitching managed to put up the AL’s third-worst ERA (4.64), allowed the most hits (1,086) and finished with the second-fewest strikeouts (617). I’m certain that there is a groundswell of fans that would prefer the slate-wiped clean from the current crop and replaced with five power-arm pitchers who would rather die than allow contact.
Nevertheless, Ryan continued his interview by listing Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and Francisco Liriano – all of whom missed significant time in 2011 – as the pitchers the organization is counting on and then added that they would like Carl Pavano to match last year’s output.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing either.
A full season of Baker and Liriano at full tilt would be an appetizing tandem. Last year, Baker was having an All-Star caliber season, going 7-5 with a 3.01 ERA and a 104/30 K/BB ratio in 17 starts before his elbow started barking.  Meanwhile Liriano is simply one season removed from his 14-10, 3.62 ERA and 201/58 K/BB in 191.2 innings that even earned him Cy Young consideration. If that pairing can revive whatever mojo they were working with in 2011 and 2010 for the entire 162-game stretch, there is reason for optimism right there.
Although he absorbs a considerable amount of flak (and given some horrendous results the past two seasons, it’s not entirely unmerited) Blackburn, when healthy, has demonstrated that he is an extremely capable back-of-the-rotation innings-eater. The past two seasons he has been without his slider thanks to the bone chips in his elbow and was constantly Party Rocked by right-handed opponents. The eternal optimist that is the Twins front office is of the mindset that, now that he’s had his second clean-up, this time it will be better.
Finally, Pavano has managed to buoy the rotation as it was steadily sinking into the turf. He’s 222 innings gave the bullpen some much needed relief. Yes, he too was battered around but a substantial portion of his hits came because of an uptick in the grounders that became hits. In 2010, 22.5% of his grounders were hits. This past season 27.0% of his grounders were hits, well above the 23.5% league average rate. That number spiked mostly because of plays like this and thisbehind him. Perhaps with the addition of Jamey Carroll, Pavano will see more of those grounders converted to outs.
So the Twins are content with marching into 2012 with a rotation of Baker, Pavano, Liriano and Blackburn and…and...wait a second…Baker, Pavano, Liriano and Blackburn. One, two, three, four. Hmm, unless the Twins plan on unveiling the first four-man rotation used since Kansa City in 1995, there appears to be a significant vacancy.
While it is possible they decide to address that opening from within, there is preliminary indication that Ryan and the Twins are looking outside the organization to fill that position as well.
Not long ago, a Cincinnati radio station reported that the Twins were one of several teams to check in on Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto. The 25-year-old represents a solid immediate and long-term addition to the rotation. Locked into a very team-friendly contract which is scheduled to pay out $5.4 M in ’12, $7.4M in ’13 and $10M in ’14 including a club option for 2015 ($10M), Cueto has shown promise towards being a front-end type pitcher. Yes, his strike out rate dropped for the fourth straight season but the regression was offset by a significant jump in his ground ball rate (rising from 41.7% to 53.7%). The Reds altered Cueto’s landing point this season to avoid tipping his pitches and he became less slider-reliant. This helped shave over a run off of his ERA for the year.
Likewise, while it seems improbable, ESPN’s Jim Bowden tweeted that the Twins were one of ten teams confirmed by club sources who were interested in free agent Mark Buehrle. Unlike Cueto, Buehrle fits within the Pavano mold in which he uses guile to get his opponents out and should do so at a price northwards of $10M per season next season. This would seemingly price him out of the Twins’ plans (unless they happen to move a contract like Pavano’s or reconcile the bullpen issues with minimal spending). If partnered with the original four, Buehrle would give the rotation two hurlers who could almost guarantee 200 innings each.
The team has also been connected with two Japanese pitchers as of late, right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma, and now left-handed Tsuyoshi Wada. The Twins were linked to Iwakuma last year when they submit a bid for the rights to negotiate with him but speculation now is that since he is an outright free agent, they will at least discuss the idea of signing him. Like Iwakuma, Wada is also a free agent and is sort of a Buehrle-lite. Turning 31 in 2012, Wada uses a plethora of pitches and speeds (none on the fast side) to retire hitters. He throws strikes, can work deep into ballgames (often throwing over 120 pitches) and keeps the ball inside the park. However, the issue with projecting Japanese pitchers, aside from the jump in competition, is that their pitchers throw once a week while MLB pitchers throw every five days.
So while Ryan may downplay the potential of adding any additional rotation arms, there are plenty of signs that the Twins are active in completing their five-man from outside the club. More options will likely surface in the next few weeks leading up to baseball’s winter meetings in Dallas, which you can read about in the TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook. For now, just be thankful Bruce Chen’s name has not been connected to this club...yet.
(Closed-circuit to Terry Ryan: Ignore that last sentence.)