Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Kevin Slowey: Know When to Hold 'Em

The Twins avoided arbitration with Kevin Slowey yesterday, reaching agreement on a one-year, $2.7 million deal that equals the exact midpoint of the figures submitted by each side. The contract probably won't receive much fanfare, as Slowey hasn't done much to endear himself to fans (or, as I've heard, management) over the past couple years, but I see it as a great deal.

I know I've come to sound like a curmudgeon at times this offseason, but Slowey is one player I'm bullishly optimistic about. While there are a number of players on the roster who seem unlikely to perform up to the level of their salary, Slowey is a strong candidate to outperform his -- and perhaps by a lot.

Paging the calendar back four years, a 22-year-old Slowey was a fast-rising star in the Twins' farm system. After being selected in the second round of the 2005 draft, the right-hander had rocketed through four levels of minor-league competition in a little over one season with jaw-dropping numbers at each stop, and along with Matt Garza he represented a bright future for the Twins' rotation.

Despite posting dazzling stats everywhere he went while ascending through the minors, Slowey's potential as a major-leaguer was downplayed by scouts and prospect buffs who proclaimed his high-80s fastball and unimpressive secondary pitches wouldn't play in the bigs. They had a point, but there's something to be said for any pitcher who can dominate level after level of pro competition as a 22-year-old in his first full professional season.

What Slowey lacked in raw stuff, he made up for with everything else. Described often by those who cover the team as a particularly bright person, Slowey achieved success by outwitting opposing batters and hitting his spots with absolute precision. In 220 innings over that first season-and-change, Slowey issued only 30 walks.

For many pitching prospects who make a living off overpowering hitters with smarts or command rather than pitch quality, the results tend to tail off in the upper levels of the minors. That wasn't the case for Slowey. In 2007, he pulled together his most impressive minor-league performance yet, posting a 1.89 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 107-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 133 1/3 innings at Triple-A. He also received two big-league call-ups that season, struggling in his mid-summer debut but returning with a 3.34 ERA and amazing 28-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 29 2/3 innings during a September call-up.

From all evidence,  Slowey was ready to become a frontline pitcher for the Twins. At 23, he had dominantly conquered every level of the minors in just over two seasons, and was already adjusting to major-league competition.

His 2008 season, spent almost entirely in the Twins rotation, was an extremely impressive one. In 160 1/3 innings spread across 27 starts, Slowey went 12-11 with a 3.99 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 123-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Not only was the young Slowey already turning in an elite walk rate and a very respectable strikeout rate, he was also establishing himself as a bulldog. His current reputation certainly doesn't reflect this fact, but Slowey hurled three complete games, and two shutouts (which was one more shutout than any other pitcher in the American League threw that year). In 55 minor-league starts, he'd turned in seven complete games.

When I reference Slowey's "current reputation" in a negative way, it's because the right-hander's standing in the eyes of Twins fans has dropped drastically over the past two years. It's not hard to see why -- he's struggled to even hover around mediocrity during that span. The thing is, you can make a pretty good case that those struggles are almost entirely the result of injuries.

Late in the 2008 season, in a game against the White Sox, Slowey was hit in the wrist by a Juan Uribe line drive. X-rays showed no broken bones, but the injury had a lasting effect. Slowey struggled out of the gate in 2009, saw his performance deteriorate rapidly in late June, and opted for season-ending wrist surgery in July. The procedure was rather serious, involving the placement of metal screws in Slowey's pitching wrist, and many wondered whether he would be able to once again harness his elite command.

The righty showed positive signs of that happening in 2010. He came back with pre-surgery velocity and, after some early hiccups, settled back into his groove as a perpetual strike-thrower. (He had a stretch of 17 consecutive outings spanning May, June, July and August in which he didn't walk more than one batter in a game.)

While his core numbers rebounded, Slowey began having stamina issues. His inability to last deep into games was partially rooted in the organization's stringent adherence to a set pitch count for young starters (Slowey exceeded 106 pitches in a start only once) but his opponents' OPS rose from .730 in innings 1-through-3 to .812 in innings 4-through-6, and those who watched him will attest that he regularly seemed to run out of gas before the sixth inning.

It's not clear whether this was related to residual wrist issues or the chronic sore elbow that forced him to have a start pushed back in early August and placed him on the disabled list later that month.

Either way, Slowey will enter the 2011 season with an offseason of rest (which was all that doctors deemed necessary) for the elbow and nearly two years removed from his wrist surgery. Still only 26, he seems like a prime candidate to have a breakout year, recapturing and building on his success from the '08 season.

Unfortunately, his struggles over the past two years -- along with the presence of five other starters on the roster -- do provide the Twins front office with an excuse to move him. I've always gotten the sense they don't see his personality as a clubhouse fit, which is why one of my three offseason predictions back in October was that he would be traded. I desperately hope that I'm wrong about that.

When the cards get dealt out this season, it's not likely that Slowey will come out an ace. But if he's healthy he'll be a very high card. And in a rotation that already features a potential ace in Francisco Liriano, an excellent veteran in Carl Pavano and a hopefully resurgent Scott Baker, that might be all the Twins need.

In poker, you never deal away a high card if it's got a chance to give you a great hand.


On an unrelated and more serious note, if you have any money you can afford to spare for a good cause, please consider contributing to One Clap for Zach. It's a fundraiser for the medical expenses of Zach Gabbard, who collapsed while playing basketball in Seth's hometown of Perham and is now hospitalized with a serious heart condition. Short of a monetary donation, I'm sure Zach's family would appreciate your thoughts and prayers.


Anonymous said...

I certainly hope you are right on your Slowey optimism. If he is able to return to his pre-injury form then he upgrades the rotation significantly. The big question is whether or not he will be able to do so. I think there has been some rumor/speculation that there is some concern over the movement of Slowey's pitches. He may be able to pitch at the same velocity and may still be able to attack the strike zone, but the thing that made Slowey effective is that there was some movement on his pitches and that movement seems to have left his pitches after the screws were put in his wrist. He is still young and he may be able to find this movement again but if he doesn't, throwing slow fastballs that don't move in the strike zone may be a recipe for disaster.

Anonymous said...

Slowey was having a good 2009 season before surgery. He was being considered for the all-star team and had ten wins with 2 or 3 starts left before the break, when the Twins shut him down.

Nick N. said...

Slowey was having a good 2009 season before surgery. He was being considered for the all-star team and had ten wins with 2 or 3 starts left before the break, when the Twins shut him down.

Yeah, I mean I think the win total overstates his effectiveness a little bit (Twins were averaging 5.7 R/G in his starts) but his numbers were plenty solid before the wrist started acting up.