Monday, January 31, 2011

Musical Chairs

Back in grade school, the game of musical chairs seemed like good, innocent fun. Little did we know that it was actually designed to prepare us for the harsh realities of the world. Oftentimes in life, there are only a limited number of spots available, and when the music stops, it sucks to be the last one standing.

Several starting pitchers for the Twins will enter spring training in a musical chairs mindset this year. The signing of Carl Pavano creates a logjam in the rotation, with six viable candidates and only five spots available. We're safe in assuming that Pavano and Francisco Liriano are guaranteed spots. We're also safe, I think, in assuming that Scott Baker is guaranteed a spot -- he's been a relatively durable and effective arm in each of the past three years, throwing 170-plus innings in each with an ERA never exceeding 4.50.

One can argue that top prospect Kyle Gibson has a shot at earning a job, but I can't see that happening unless an injury or two strikes; there's simply no reason to start his arbitration clock unless pushed by necessity. So it comes down to Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing and Kevin Slowey competing for the two remaining spots.

Each hurler can make a good case for himself.

Blackburn was the most stable force in the rotation over the 2008 and '09 seasons. He averaged 200 quality innings, and the Twins rewarded that performance with a four-year contract last spring. After signing the new deal, however, Blackburn's contact-happy pitching style began to catch up with him, and he found himself demoted to Triple-A in July. Late in the year, he returned to the big-league rotation and pitched effectively, earning himself a spot in the playoff rotation (though his turn never came).

Duensing stepped into the rotation in 2009 and made a crucial contribution down the stretch, helping propel the Twins to a postseason berth. Last year, he once again played a significant role in the team's success, moving from the bullpen to the rotation when Blackburn's struggles created an opening in July and posting stellar numbers as a starter down the stretch. In 23 career major-league starts, Duensing is 12-3 with a 2.93 ERA.

Slowey pretty clearly has the best stuff and upside of the three, but he has also experienced the least success over the past couple years. A wrist injury limited him to 90 innings in 2009, and last year his production was suppressed by injuries and stamina issues, to the degree that he was left off the postseason roster. However, Slowey is the youngest and he's the only one with a sustainable recipe for success; Duensing's performance last year was propped up by a virtually unrepeatable .270 BABIP and Blackburn will always be heavily dependent on luck and defense. Slowey has a historically great strikeout-to-walk ratio and was flat-out dominant at every level in the minors.

My guess is that, barring a truly awful performance in spring training, Blackburn can stake his claim to one of the rotation spots in question. His greatest value is in his durability (team-leading 92 starts over the past three years), which I believe is the chief reason he got a long-term contract a year ago. He also doesn't offer much as a bullpen arm, and I suspect that is why, following his demotion to bullpen last year, he was sent to the minors after only two relief appearances to keep his arm in starting shape.

If I'm correct in that presumption, we'll be looking at a spring battle between Duensing and Slowey for the fifth and final spot. My opinion right now is that Duensing should be the odd man out. That's not so much an indictment of the left-hander as an acknowledgment that, among all three candidates, he's the only one with any history of success as a reliever. Before moving to the rotation last season, Duensing had registered a 1.67 ERA and held opponents to a .591 OPS in 39 appearances out of the bullpen. Outside of Matt Capps and Jose Mijares, the Twins are short on relief candidates with recent major-league success, so Duensing and his experience would be a vital addition.

Beyond being more well-suited to pitch in relief, Duensing is due for some serious regression as a starting pitcher. His 2.93 big-league ERA as a starter dwarfs his 4.00 mark in Triple-A, and despite his outstanding poise his stuff just isn't very good. This was on display when he failed to induce a single swinging strike in his ALDS start against the Yankees -- a stat I just can't get out of my head.

Eventually, mediocre stuff catches up with you. Look no further than Blackburn's 2010 campaign as evidence. That doesn't mean Duensing is going to suddenly turn into a pumpkin -- and it does help that he throws with his left hand -- but he's much more likely to be the team's fifth (or sixth) best starter this year than their third-best, as some people seem to view him.

I can see the argument for the other side. Certainly Duensing has done enough over the past two years to earn a rotation spot on merit, and given Slowey's stamina issues it's not hard to see his stuff playing better out of the bullpen. The difference-maker for me is Duensing's experience as a reliever, and the fact that -- much like the last two years -- he'll be ready to step into the rotation when things go south. If healthy, Slowey could easily recapture his 2008 form and become a legitimate top-end starter, while Duensing would have to rely on continuing to outperform his underwhelming peripheral numbers (against lineups stacked with righties, against whom he is extremely vulnerable in comparison to lefties) in order to achieve that kind of success.

Duensing has been there when the Twins have needed him over the past two years, and he's played an underrated role in their back-to-back division titles. He's shown an uncanny ability to step up and perform in whatever role he's asked, and that's all the more reason for him to open the season in the bullpen, where his dominance against lefty hitters can be fully utilized. Without a doubt, the Twins will need an extra starter at some point, and when that time comes, Duensing will hopefully be ready to step in with added confidence. Just like last year.


lvl 5 Charizard said...

You know how I know slowey will be the odd man out? Because before spring training starts gardenhire has said pavano is likely the opening day starter instead of liriano, a decision that should be a no brainer for liriano. Because before spring training weve already committed to catching butera, possibly the worst player in mlb, when pavano pitches. Because this is the organization that currently has 40 man spots tied up by eric hacker and dusty hughes because of their meaningless win totals and era respectively. Because this is the organization that ran possible the best middle infield combination out of town because they werent fast enough and replaced them with guys that are likely going to be worse at almost everything except speed.

The twins organization has shown a perpensity to make decisions based on the wrong numbers, and based on the interview with rob anthony last year it appears they make decisions based on dangerous numbers like risp. Gardenhire has always had a nasty talent, and I know hed rather seen high contact pitchers than guys that can generate swings and misses. Couple that with an organization that doesnt believe in regression and youve got a recipe for a rotation featuring blackburn, duensing and pavano, three guys whose k/9 will likely be sub 6 and possible all sub 5.

Bryz said...

I think another reason Blackburn will be guaranteed a rotation spot is because of his contract. He may only be paid $3 million in 2011 ($300,000 more than Slowey) but he also has the additional years, and I don't think the Twins would want to pay him that much just to throw 50-70 innings.

I agree, I would learn towards Duensing just because of his experience in the bullpen and the need of a second lefty behind Mijares. However, that would make the Hughes pickup even more baffling, so again in agreement with you, I see a competition between Duensing and Slowey in spring training.

Vinny said...

So you are saying that if Gibson is one of the best 5 starters he won't get the job because the Twins won't want to start his arbitration clock?

Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Yeah, right.

lvl, yeah, those win totals are pretty meaningless, allright. Hate to see pitchers win games. Its just so....meaningless.

Butera the worst player im mlb? Ha ha ha ha. You are almost as funny as Nick.

I think Duenslinger is the third best starter. He was really tough when he went into the rotation last year. And a second lefty starter is needed.

Anonymous said...

Hey Vinny- we get it man; You obviously had a few pops tonight. However, your over indulgence of Busch Light doesn't make you a great baseball mind.... 'ha ha ha ha ha'... grow up and stop making ignorant postings on an otherwise well intentioned Twins forum. We don't need or want ya 'dude'... 'ha ha ha ha ha'

Large Canine said...

Butera not the worst MLB'r? OK, who is worse? Gibson making the rotation. Vinny, have you actually followed the Twins in the past 1, 2, 5, 10 years? He would have to throw mutiple no hit performances during spring training and still probably not make the starting five.

Ed Bast said...

I'd vote for Duensing in the rotation simply because he's a left-handed finesse pitcher instead of a right-handed finesse pitcher which the Twins stockpile. Pavano, Baker, Slowey, Blackburn, Gibson, Wimmers, blah blah blah. As the Twins should have (but clearly haven't) learned by now, trotting out interchangeable contact pitchers in the playoffs doesn't work. So to me it doesn't really matter who is the odd man out. Why don't we trade 1 or 2 of these guys? Maybe there will be a good starter or RH bat available at the deadline.

rghrbek said...


I agree we need to trade one of them, and actually I think it should be Duensing. I like this kid's moxie, but trade him while his value is a little higher. I agree with Nick, that he is due for a regression, something that more resonates with his minor league numbers.

Maybe Slowey gets you more, but I just think Slowey's upside is stronger.

Blackburn, should be the one traded, but that hideous and unwarranted contract (we had him locked up for 3 of those 4 years we signed him for I believe through arbitration), will prevent this.

Regardless it will be interesting to see.

Josh said...

I'm worried that Slowey is going to be the odd man out and that it won't be for performance issues but because of "intangibles".

Pavano, Liriano, & Baker are given, leaving Blackburn, Slowey, & Duensing to compete for 2 slots.

Duensing has proven ability to swing back & forth between the bullpen and starting, which is valuable, even if he does experience some regression. It makes him logical to start in the pen. But it would be nice to have a second LH in the rotation and there's a pretty good argument to be made that he deserves a chance after last season to prove that he can sustain his performance before we write him off.

Slowey's problems seem almost entirely related to injury, which suggests that if he's healthy he should have a spot. But he doesn't seem to have the kind of mentality that Gardy wants in his starters.

Blackburn has generally been healthy, but frequently erratic. He'll have a great run and then go completely to hell, but management seems to only see the good stretch.

I don't dislike any of these guys and as 4th or 5th starters we could do far worse. But it'd be nice if they're all healthy to consider dealing one of these guys for another bullpen power arm, especially with Gibson & Wimmers getting close in the minors.

neckrolls said...

I think a midseason trade is inevitable, and the depth at the back end of the rotation will be a good surplus from which to deal. I would prefer to see the Twins hold off on a trade until then. But if they do make a move before the season starts, rghrbek is right - the only guy they should think about dealing is Duensing. Everybody else is coming off down years and would fetch a much lower return than they might in June or July after they've had a half-season's worth of (we hope) at least decent starts. Given all the variables, Duensing to the bullpen looks to me like it provides the most all-around value in the short term.

Hatsofftous said...

The Twins could have a pretty entertaining competition between Casilla, Tolbert, Repko and Butera for the title of "Worst MLB Player."

Of course Casilla will get a lot more playing time than the other 3, so he's probably looking ahead to duking it out with Melky Cabrerra, Yuniesky Betancourt Skip Schumaker for "Worst Everyday Player in the MLB."

There's a lot to look forward to.

Anonymous said...

No way, Nick. Duensing has pitched too well to not earn a spot. He has to lose a spot at this point. It's Slowey vs. Baker for the final spot, and while I'd like to see Baker go to the pen, I don't like Slowey's odds. Blackburn is also a given...if he can pitch for 6 months like he did for 3 months last year...he is #1 starter material.

Pete said...

Duensing is gonna be a starter - - check out the interview with Gardy. That means its down to Blackburn or Slowey for the last spot. Personally, I feel like its gonna be Blackburn to start the season, but that is just due to the fact that his $'s are already guaranteed with the club. If he, or any of the other starters struggle, then we'll see Slowey back in the rotation. Here's to all of them pitching their butts off.

Win Twins

Peter said...

With two closers and without middle releif pitchers one might show up with a six man rotation.

Mike said...

It could have been injury related, but for much of last season, it seemed Slowey would hit about 65-75 pitches, and that was it for him. If he got through the next inning or two beyond those pitches, I think it was luck.

That's why I like him in the pen. I'm not sure if his arm has the bounceback necessary for the pen, but his ability to be effective early and then not so much by fourth or fifth inning makes me think the Twins may not miss much by having him become a reliever.

But Nick has a good point with Duensing- it definitely would add stability to the bullpen, it would be another good left-handed pitcher, and he seems to have no problem switching roles mid-season.

Either way, I do think a trade involving a starting pitcher is inevitable at some point before or during the season.

Mark Lane said...

I think Duensing clearly is the best pitcher of the three. If Slowey isn't absolutely threading the kneedle he gets his tits lit up. He shows no capacity to gut out an outing where he doesn't have anything. He shows no willingness to pitch inside. His breaking ball breaks right out of his hand and is pretty much only a show me pitch. His change up is average. The pace of his games are excruciating. It's hard for me to imagine him being ahead of Duensing for the reasons I mentioned. Even harder to imagine is any value he adds to the bullpen when he's not a huge strike out guy and doesn't get groundballs. He probably will end up a starter because Duensing has proven usefull as a reliever. I realize he's been injured but if and when he is finally healthy I dont see more than a 5th starter.

USAFChief said...

My gut (and my experience as an MLB exec in my imaginary TV series) tells me Slowey is the odd man out.

1. For some reason, Slowey's never seemed to me to be a Gardy favorite.

2. Baker and Blackburn have contracts that last past 2011. Slowey doesn't.

3. Duensing gives the Twins a 2nd lefty starter, and has had positive results as a starter over parts of the past two seasons.

4. The Twins have acquired about 34 possible bullpen lefties this offseason, leading me to believe they plan on leaving Duensing right where he is, at least to start the season.

5. For some reason, Slowey's never seemed to me to be a Gardy favorite.

Chipper said...

i agree with nick here. I think duensing could be a solid middle reliever or set up man in the majors and the twins really need more help in the bullpen.

P.S. casilla would win the contest for the worst everyday player in the majors

Nick N. said...

All very good reasons, Chief, though you didn't need to list any other than 1 and 5. What you didn't mention was whether you think Duensing is the right choice.

USAFChief said...

What you didn't mention was whether you think Duensing is the right choice.

I'd agree with giving Duensing a shot at the rotation to start the season.

What I don't agree with is Blackburn instead of Slowey, but that's the way I expect the Twins to play it.

Kelly Vance said...

Anon, I'm with Vinny. And there is nothing Vinny said that made me think he was anything other than cracking wise. I thought he was funny. Pops? Stop judging others by yourself. Besides, what's your point? I mean, Besides being a moron?

Large Canine. I'm not cleaning up after you out in the park. You don't even know what criticism you are making. What? Butera? Gibby? What's your point?

Gibson was drafted high for a reason you nitwit. Multiple no hitters before he is promoted? Are you serious?
Nobody in the history of baseball has had to do that to get promoted. Most reputable experts expect Gibby to move up after a few starts in AAA. I suspect if he loks good in Spring Training, you will see a trade to make room.

Ed Bast. Right on. You know, I have been watching the last couple drafts thinking, the Twins always want these low speed strike throwers. But why not take a chance on a couple high 90s flame throwers? Maybe the Ballamore trade was an attempt to do that and balance things out a bit.

Josh, Slowey frustrates more than you. I mean, the same guy that threw a no no through 7 got shelled when I took my kids to the park in August. We'll see. I keep thinking he has done well for long stretches before. Had a 10-2 start once.

I could see a mid season trade with Seattle for Felix, Send Blackie, Slowey or Baker and a hot prospect there. Sounds like a reach, but by then the Mariners will be toast and they have a track record of sending away great players once they disappear in the Angels or Rangers rear view mirror. I can hope, can't I?

And what I hope is that Alexi makes a bunch of you hypercritical whiners eat your words. C'ept if he does well you will all say "I knew he was great all along."

Large Canine said...

Kelly, "You don't even know what criticism you are making. What? Butera? Gibby? What's your point?" My point is that Butera IS the worst player in MLB. Or pretty darn close. On Gibson my point: Gardy's histroy tells me there is no way he is pitching at Target field before September unless 2-3 starters go down via injury or trade. Twins have a long history of not wanting to start the arb clock sooner than they absolutely have too. Or maybe I'm just cracking wise.

Josh said...

I'm not an Alexi basher. He might crap out this season, but I'm actually ok with making the call to give him a shot to play every day and find out if he can start in MLB or is a utility guy. It wouldn't surprise me for him to come near the O-Dog's production this year.

Repko isn't even the worst 4th OF in the league, IMHO. He's not great, but he's not useless.

Butera, OTOH, is one of the worst players in MLB. I'm still not convinced that his defensive ability is all it's cracked up to be, and he is easily one of the worst hitters.

@Kelly: the fact that Slowey could throw 7 no-hit innings, plus his minor-league track record, plus his success while healthy in MLB suggests he's probably the best bet to have success for the Twins as a starter if he's healthy. I'm sorry he sucked when you saw him live, but forgive me if I ignore your anecdotal evidence as proof that he sucks...

cy1time said...

Duensing has to be the odd man out and he goes to the Pen. Too much invested in Blackburn, he's in. If Duensing totally outpitches Slowey in spring training, I think Slowey gets moved, and there will be plenty of takers.

Great discussion, a case can be made for all these guys to stay in the rotation. That bodes well for the Twins.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not an Alexi basher. He might crap out this season, but I'm actually ok with making the call to give him a shot to play every day and find out if he can start in MLB or is a utility guy. It wouldn't surprise me for him to come near the O-Dog's production this year."

I've seen this "its time to see if alexi's a good baseball player" argument a few times. He's got 1073 major league PA's and an awful career hitting line of .249/.306/.327/.633. Thats a terrible. Lots of evidence already exist that suggests hes a bad baseball player. How is it at all a good idea to see if this is the year he can handle a starting spot? Orlando hudson hit .268/.338/.372/.710 in one of his worst offensive seasons. You should be shocked if casilla approaches that line.

Relying on casilla to hold down an important middle infield position is a bad idea. And what happens when we see what type of player he is and he turns out to be the sub nick punto utility infielder his first 4 major league seasons suggest he is? Tolbert or Plouffe become the SS?

Schruender said...

Agreed that Duensing will be the guy sent to the pen, but don't agree with Gardenhire's decision if it does happen. Duensing is better than Blackburn regardless of how reliable or durable Blackburn has been.

Anonymous said...

The last two spots clearly need to be for Duensing and Gibson. Slowey and Blaakburn are the two worst pitchers in baseball and should be fired. If I hear about the Twins being afraid to bring up a top prospect because of the "arbitration clock" then I will give up on this team. If the guy can pitch then why not him, he does you no good in the minors so really waiting to bring these guys up does you absolutely nothing. No wonder we never have any random breakout rookies: we always ease them in to a career of mediocrity. Our open channel between the Majors and Minors never gives guy a chance to say "hey, I'm in the Majors! Time to start whipping this ball down there and helping this team get to the World Series!"