So I've been away from blogging for a while, part of it being due to a longer-than-usual post-playoff slump, part of it being due to a much busier work schedule, and part of it being due to an offseason that hasn't thus far provided much to write about (although that should be something we're used to, last winter notwithstanding). Regardless of the reasons, my contributions to this site have been lacking (or nonexistent), leaving AK to shoulder the load, which he has done with his usual excellence. I have to admit that my mind hasn't yet fully shifted into Twins mode, but with the first workout for pitchers and catchers exactly a month away, it's time.
We've already covered the presumptive starting lineup, so now let's take a look at the starting rotation, leaving the biggest questions on the team (the bullpen) for last. Regarding stats, it's still a little early for a lot of projection systems; I don't think PECOTA is out yet and apparently CHONE is deceased, so I'll throw in the recently-released (and notably regression-heavy) ZiPS projections as a point of comparison. Jesse over at Twinkie Town has done some nice work with the offensive numbers, but I'm only looking at the pitchers here. I'm also going to assume that Carl Pavano will be re-signed, which Joe C thinks will be done later this week. I think I'm still generally in favor of a two-year deal depending on the terms, but I'd wager some regression is in the cards for Pavstache.
1. Francisco Liriano
Last season, if perhaps not regaining his untouchable 2006 form (complete with the arm-straining mechanics that produced the filthiest slider in the league but probably weren't sustainable in the long run), Liriano took strides towards becoming the legitimate ace the Twins had been lacking for years. His ability to miss bats and limit walks produced a FIP of 2.66, good for third in all of baseball. Perhaps more importantly, he was able to avoid injury, eating 191 innings, by far his most in a major league season (although in 2008 he threw almost 200, with the bulk of those coming at the AAA level). Projections have his HR total nearly doubling, as he allowed only 9 all of last season for a below-average HR/FB rate of 6.3%. Even with some normalization in that regard, however, the flip side of that coin is the .340 BABIP that ranked as the second-unluckiest mark in the league that should certainly correct downward. There's no reason that Liriano shouldn't be one of the top pitchers in the AL if he can stay healthy, continue to generate strikeouts, and keep the ball on the ground. The bottom line is that the Twins will need Liriano to continue his development into a true staff ace if they want to contend or make any sort of deep playoff run this season.
2. Scott Baker
Is there any pitcher on the staff that is more frustrating than Scott Baker? I should clarify- this isn't meant to be a knock on Baker. He's been the epitome of "solid but not spectacular" the last few seasons, posting a FIP under 4 in three of four recent campaigns. It's the "spectacular" part that gets me, namely Baker's flashes of absolute brilliance that are often followed up by a huge dud. Case in point: June 16th vs Colorado last year, Baker looks completely dominant, striking out 12 in 7 innings and walking only one. A week and a half later, he gives up three home runs to the Mets and barely makes it out of the fourth inning. The long ball is certainly one of Baker's weak spots, given that he's an extreme fly ball pitcher. His HR/FB rate of 10.2% last year was right around average, but the fact that Baker has one of the highest fly ball percentages in the AL means that there are more opportunities for those flies to turn into homers. With the way Target Field plays, one would think that would play to Baker's advantage, but I'm not sure the stats are there to support that yet (in a small sample size, Baker's home HR total total decreased from 12 in 2009 to 8 in 2010, but there's no way of knowing how much of that was due to Target Field). I'd expect some BABIP correction to benefit Baker, as his mark of .329 last year was a little high, and there's a positive trend in that his strikeout rate has trended upwards every year he's been in the league. Baker turns 30 next season, and the true "breakout" year that some of us have predicted in the past maybe isn't likely, but there's no reason we shouldn't expect at least modest improvement for an already solid starter.
3. Carl Pavano
Here's the wild card. While he's not officially signed yet, what should we expect from the recently-turned-35 Carl Pavano in 2011? Pavano proved a key part of the Twins rotation last year, gobbling up 221 innings with a tidy ERA of 3.75, which only marginally exceeded his peripherals. His strikeout rate was certainly unspectacular and represented a marked decrease from 2009, but Pavano was able to make up for it by limiting walks. If you buy into FanGraphs' WAR values, his 2010 performance was worth $12.6 MM. And hey, in honor of Gardy, I'll mention that it certainly seems like Pavano is a "great clubhouse guy" and veteran presence in a young rotation. The computers, however, seem to be taking note of his veteran status. Of the currently-released projections, ZiPS is certainly the hardest on Pavano in terms of ERA (Bill James has him at 4.16), and it has him pegged for only 165 innings in 2011, meaning it thinks some time on the DL is likely. Oddly, though, ZiPS predicts an improvement in K rate and K/BB ratio. I'm a glass-is-half-full kinda guy, so I'll take the over on innings pitched, and I don't see anything glaring in last year's peripherals that would suggest a major statistical correction is in order. However, there's no way around the fact that Pavano is aging. He's never had overpowering raw stuff, and he'll need to rely on his ability to keep the ball on the ground, which he did at career-high clip of 51.2% last season. If you want a statistical reference point for crafy veteran-ness, though, it's pretty interesting that Pavano led all of the majors last season by inducing a 35.9% swing rate on balls outside the zone, a category in which he also led the league in 2009. I'll keep mentioning the holes in the bullpen because that is this team's glaring weakness, and much of Pavano's value is tied up in his ability to eat innings and pitch deep into games, which will take on even more important with the current lack of late-inning options. If (and this is potentially a big if) Pavano can avoid missing significant time for injury, I think he'll once again be a valuable part of this rotation if the price is right.
4. Kevin Slowey
If not a carbon copy of Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey certainly exhibits a fair number of similarities. Both strike out a fairly respectable number of batters, and while both exhibit excellent control, Slowey is Exhibit A of the Twins' emphasis on limiting free passes. K/BB rate isn't necessarily the best predictor of success, but in that regard, Slowey shines; his mark of 4.60 from 2007-2010 is sandwiched right in second place between Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. Pretty good company. It's this talent that had some fans, like myself, anticipating much more out of Slowey after what looked to be a pre-breakout 2008 season. But 2009 was cut short by a wrist injury, and in 2010, Slowey never seemed to quite find his groove (a seven-inning no-hitter notwithstanding). His 3.98 FIP was respectable enough, but there were a few worrying signs that will need to turn around if Slowey is to improve in 2011. Back to the Baker analogy, Slowey surpasses his counterpart in his extreme fly ball tendencies. Among pitchers with 150 IP, only Ted Lilly allowed more fly balls and induced fewer grounders, and in fact, Slowey's GB rate of 28.3% was his lowest season mark yet and represents a downward trend over the last three seasons. That's not a recipe for becoming better then a league-average pitcher, even if Slowey may have the K/BB numbers to hang with the big boys. The projections seem to agree, thinking he's in for no more than modest improvements. Slowey's numbers certainly aren't bad for a fourth starter, but I've been hoping for more. Let's hope he proves me wrong.
5. Nick Blackburn
I've included both players here because this is likely to be one of the battles to watch in Spring Training. After pitching extremely well out of the bullpen for the much of the season last year, Duensing was called upon to take Blackburn's rotation slot after the latter's historically bad (read our post about it here) June and July. It appeared that Blackburn's extreme pitch-to-contact ways (91% of his pitches were put in play last season) had finally caught up with him. Taken as a whole, his 2010 numbers are putrid. To Blackburn's credit, though, after getting busted to the minors he came back and pitched well in the last few games of the season. He misses hardly any bats, but what Blackburn does have going for him is the ability to induce ground ball outs, something he absolutely must do to have any chance and which he did more than 50% of the time last season. Duensing, however, killed even more worms than Blackburn last season (52.9% GB rate) and has proven he's a generally more effective starter when given the opportunity. Duensing's sparkling numbers last season are partly mitigated by the fact that he spent much of the year as a left-handed specialist out of the bullpen, allowing him to face mostly lefty hitters (which he excels at). He also benefited from a significantly below average BABIP of .254. ZiPS has Duensing with better numbers across the board in 2011, but if I had to bet on it, I'd have to say the job is probably Blackburn's to lose, if only for the fact that Duensing is actually a valuable commodity in the bullpen, whereas Blackburn probably is not. I'd like to see Duensing get the nod from the outset, but if I'm honest I'd say he probably starts 2011 where he started 2010.
Although the Twins' 2011 rotation essentially resembles last year's model, the biggest questions will be whether Liriano continues his ascent to elite status, whether Baker and Slowey can stay solid and find even small ways to get better, whether Pavano can hold off the effects of age and once again reach or surpass 200 innings, and whether Blackburn or Duensing will get the nod in the fifth slot. We'll certainly be paying attention to Kyle Gibson's rise through the minors, but at this point, it looks like things are pretty much set. Neither the White Sox or Tigers made any significant changes to their respective rotations either, so the same cast of characters will be left to duke it out once again for the AL Central title. I can't say I fault the Twins for not making any moves, as there weren't many moves to be made here. We'll have to wait and see if the Twins do anything else to shore up the other side of the pitching equation, which is a much more pressing concern. But that's another story for another day.