Friday, April 10, 2009

A Closer Look at the Twins, Part III

Frequent commenter The Black Freighter is a Twins Geek.  Most of the folks on this blog are, aside from freaks like Barnyard (who likes the Brewers, because they are named after beer).  But The Black Freighter (TBF) is special--he can tell you which outfielder in Double A has a shot at the bigs.  He's a little scary.  We invited him to preview the Twins season.  This is part three (part 2 herepart 1 here), and it is mostly a look at the pitching.  It is, as per usual,  in depth. 

Without further ado, TBF speaks:

The Twins pitching staff was fairly strong in 2008.  The team led the league in fewest walks, averaging 2 ½ strikeouts for each free pass given.  The squad also boasted a 4.18 earned run average and allowed a homerun a game.  What makes these numbers impressive is the fact that the team trotted out Livan Hernandez and Boof Bonser for 35 starts and gave struggling bullpen arms Juan Rincon and Brian Bass-hole a lot of innings.  The 4-man combo pitched 354.1 innings and allowed 219 earned runs to score.  Holy freaking crap!    

This year’s starting rotation is one of the best and brightest in the major leagues.  Returning 5 starters who all took turns being the most dominant pitcher on the team during various months of the year makes for an exciting future.  And don’t forget closer Joe Nathan, the 3-time all-star strikes out over a batter an inning and finished 2008 with a ridiculous 1.33 ERA. 
STARTERS: RH Scott Baker, LH Francisco Liriano, RH Kevin Slowey, RH Nick Blackburn and LH Glen Perkins 
BULLPEN: RH R.A. Dickey, RH Philip Humber, LH Brian Duensing*, LH Craig Breslow, RH Matt Guerrier, RH Luis Ayala and RH Jesse Crain
CLOSER: RH Joe Nathan  

* Brian Duensing has made the opening day roster, but will likely be sent down once Scott Baker returns from the disabled list.**  

**Big Blue Monkey, Editor Note:  This was written prior to tonight's 12-5 win over the White Sox, in which Dickey, Duensing and Humber were the only three pitchers on the mound for the Twins.

Starting Five
The Minnesota Twins have arguably the best young rotation in the major leagues.  The graybeard and ace is Scott Baker at only 27 years of age.  The impressive trio of Baker, Francisco Liriano and Kevin Slowey is very comparable to the Oakland A’s three-headed monster of Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder, except the Twins also possess strong #4 and #5 starters in Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins.  

After signing a big contract in the middle of spring training, Scott Baker immediately began to struggle and has now been designated to the disabled list with shoulder stiffness. The Twins say they are not worried and think the hurler will only miss a start or two, but if the injury persists, the Twins would greatly miss Baker on the mound every five games.  When healthy, Baker relies on great control and a combination of 4 pitches: a low-90’s fastball, an 82 mph slider, a 78 mph curve and an 82 mph changeup.  This mix allows Baker to average over 7 strikeouts per 9 innings.  

Filling in to start opening day will be phenom, Francisco Liriano. Liriano endured a major setback in 2006 when the pitcher elected for Tommy John surgery.  The surgery replaced a ligament in the elbow with a tendon from his forearm.  Many pitchers come back from the surgery stronger than ever and the Twins certainly hope this is the case with “The Franchise.”  Liriano’s dominance in 2006 shows how insanely good he can be.  Not only was he on pace to be that year’s Rookie of the Year, but he was an odds-on favorite to win the Cy Young as well.  When healthy, Francisco champions one of the nastiest 3-pitch arsenals in all of baseball.  His mid-90’s fastball, a devastating 87 mph slider and an 83 mph changeup cause some of the silliest swings you’ll ever see.  Last year, Liriano’s fastball and slider were 4 mph slower than in 2006, but they slowly increased in speed as the season wore on.  Look for the future star to have a very strong showing in 2008.  Over 200 strikeouts and an ERA in the 3’s is a strong possibility.  

Kevin Slowey is vastly underrated by many fans, but has the makeup to be a better version of control-artist, Brad Radke.  Slowey is ranked as the top Twins starter in nearly all fantasy baseball mock drafts and might surprise with an incredible year in 2009.  The right-hander has taken the “walks will haunt” threat to heart as he struck out a sick 5 batters to every free pass he allowed last year.  The blogger is incredibly intelligent and it really shows on the mound as he is able to throw quick innings and keep the batters guessing with a 4-pitch repertoire that is nearly identical to Baker’s.  Look for Slowey to lead the staff in innings pitched, have an ERA in the low 3’s and challenge for a spot on the all-star team. 

Nick Blackburn was a surprise pick for Baseball America’s top Twins prospect in 2008.  Most people disagreed with the pick, but Blackburn impressed everyone with a campaign that had him finish in 8th place for American League Rookie of the Year.  Blackburn started game 163 for the Twins and gutted out an incredible performance, allowing just a solo-shot from Twin-killer Jim Thome.  Blackburn doesn’t strikeout many players, but he is good at limiting walks and pitching to contact.  Armed with a sinking cutter he throws 25% of the time, Blackburn induces a lot of ground balls and is strikingly similar to Carlos Silva.  

Former Golden Gopher, Glen Perkins, rounds out the starting five but is certainly no slouch.  Although the lefty struggled in September with a dead arm, he had a sterling August that included four straight wins against the Yankees, Mariners, Angels and Mariners again.  Perkins was blessed with great run support in 2008 which helped him to a lofty 12-4 record, despite having an ERA of 4.41.  Perkins is a fly ball pitcher and will see a fair share of his pitches leave the park, which makes it incredibly important for him to limit the amount of players that reach base.  Averaging nearly 11 hits and 1.5 homeruns per 9 innings is a recipe for disaster.  Look for Perkins to throw his above-average curveball more often this season, a year removed from injury, since hitters were able to wait on his fastball frequently as he threw it 70% of the time in 2008. 

The Bullpen           
The 2009 bullpen took a major hit when it was announced that side-armer [Big Blue Monkey Editor Note:  We Call Him The Sub-Mariner around here] Pat Neshek would need Tommy John surgery.  A dominant set-up man, the loss of the Brooklyn Park native derailed the ’08 pen and was a big reason the Twins failed to make the playoffs.  Making matters worse, Boof Bonser was also lost for the year with a torn labrum and rotator cuff.  Bonser has a questionable track record, but has the pitches to become an ideal bullpen stud.  Under the direction of Ron Gardenhire, the Twins generally have strong bullpens, however, this will definitely be the biggest question mark entering 2009.  

Joe Nathan is the best closer in major league baseball.  After coming to the Twins in 2004, Nathan’s numbers have been cartoonish.  Nathan has allowed only 71 earned runs in his 5-year Twins career… Livan Hernandez had 85 in less than a season for the Twins in 2008.  Mixing a fastball that approaches 95 mph, an 88 mph slider and a curveball that makes many a knee buckle, Nathan seldom walks batters, rarely allows homeruns and averages over a strikeout an inning.  The 3-time all-star is a sensitive individual as well… the Pursuit of Happyness gets him to shed a tear every time.  

With Neshek out, the Twins will look to Jesse Crain to fill the role of set-up man for Joe Nathan.  Like Nathan, Crain also throws a fastball, slider and curveball combination.  His fastball regularly hits 94 mph, but he struggles to hit his spots regularly.  Crain is prone to giving up inopportune hits, but has the talent to be a dominant reliever.  Ideally, Crain is your #3 option in the pen, so he will have to have a big year for the Twins to succeed.  Although projections like Bill James and Marcel do not think highly of Crain in 2009, I see him bouncing back a year removed from tears in his rotator cuff and labrum.

Luis Ayala is the other “big” addition to the Twins this season.  Ayala had a brutal year with the Nationals and Mets in 2008 as he fought injury and ineffectiveness to post a 5.71 ERA.  What appears to be a common theme with the Twins, Ayala is a Tommy John surgery survivor, missing the entire 2006 season.  The Twins are obviously hoping that Ayala bounces back to his pre-injury days when he was regarded as a solid reliever.  When on his game, Luis relies on pinpoint control to limit line drives and induce a steady diet of groundballs.  Spring training concluded with Ayala not allowing a run in 7 innings.   

When Neshek was lost for the 2008 season, Matt Guerrier became the de facto 8th inning guy.  In a role that is not suited for his skill set, Guerrier struggled mightily as the season wore on.  Guerrier led the league in pitching appearances with 76, pitching in nearly half of the team’s games.  Clearly throwing with a dead arm, Matt completed the season with a 5.19 ERA.  At age 30, the Twins desperately need Guerrier to bounce back this year.  Armed with one of the best curveballs on the staff, Guerrier also throws a fastball, slider and changeup.  

Craig Breslow was picked up off of waivers from the Cleveland Indians on May 29, 2008 and became an integral piece of the bullpen almost immediately.  The lefty did not give up a run in his final 14 appearances and limited lefties to a .183 batting average.  Breslow’s role on the staff will be to face difficult left-handed hitters like Jim Thome and Travis Hafner late in games.  Possibly even more impressive than his baseball accolades, is the fact that Breslow may be the smartest man in baseball.  Craig graduated from Yale with degrees in molecular biophysics and biochemistry.  Breslow’s goal after his baseball career ends is to cure cancer; his sister is a 15-year survivor.  With an average repertoire of pitches, Breslow uses… surprise, surprise… his smarts and knowledge of the game to get players out.     

This is R.A. Dickey’s second stint with the Twins.  He was briefly on the roster last year, before the Seattle Mariners selected him in the Rule 5 draft.  With over 375 innings logged in the majors, Dickey has posted a nasty 5.57 ERA.  Hoping to prolong his career, Dickey has mastered the art of the knuckleball.  The ball is thrown fairly slow and with little movement creating a pitch that dances to the plate.  The Twins and Dickey think that he’ll be especially effective in the still air of the dome.  Knuckleballers tend to be more hittable after a couple trips through the batting order when hitters get used to the pitch, which makes Dickey an intriguing option in the bullpen.     

Philip Humber is the second player from the Johan Santana trade to make his Minnesota Twins debut.  The third overall pick from the 2004 draft is yet another Tommy John surgery victim on the Twins roster.  Unfortunately, Humber has struggled to regain the dominance and pitch velocity that made him a top prospect.  The right-hander throws a mean curveball and strikes out nearly a batter an inning.  Humber probably needs more minor league seasoning, but would have to pass through waivers to return to AAA.  Humber had a terrible spring training, highlighted by a 4-hit, 4-run performance while only getting one man out.    

The final component to the 2009 bullpen is Brian Duensing.  A late addition when Scott Baker was sidelined with shoulder stiffness, the Nebraska product fits the Twins mold as a control pitcher.  Duensing is also the proud owner of a bronze medal from the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  After a strong 2007 season, Duensing slipped a bit in 2008.  Normally a starter, Duensing could have some success as a reliever and was very strong during spring training.     

Previously:  Batter Up,  A Look Back at 2008
Up Next: Big Questions and Predictions

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