Moving along with the best team the Twins can make out of their current roster, here are my picks for the starting rotation:
1. Scott Baker
Twins fans, meet the new ace of the staff. 48 career starts and all, now that Santana is gone, Baker is the best we have left. And he can be quite good. He can also be horrendous. But he's been such a solid performer in his minor league career, you have to think he's going to put it together at the major-league level soon. Maybe he already has: in 14 starts after the All-Star break last year, he went 6-6 with a 3.44 ERA in 91.2 innings of work. That's an average of 6.1 innings per start. His WHIP is still higher than I'd like to see, but the results are coming. For all the talk about him needing to show more consistency, he really only had 6 bad starts in 2007 out of 23 (3 were against the White Sox?!), so even last year he gave the team a pretty good chance to win almost 3/4 of the time. I expect him to build on his strong second half and give the team 200+ innings in 2008.
2. Fransisco Liriano
A lot of folks really want to take it easy on Liriano, and I can't blame them. With Santana in NYC, Liriano is the only hope for the franchise in terms of a #1 starter. When he was healthy in 2006, he was actually better than Santana. By all accounts, he's gone through his Tommy John surgery rehab patiently, and is in great shape to head for spring training. Because he's already 15 months into his recovery, a lot of the conventional wisdom about a pitcher's first season back from TJ surgery may not apply. However, if the Twins want to take it easy and keep Liriano on a strict pitch count, I think that's a sensible thing to do. And the best way to keep him to a regulated schedule will be to start him every 5th day. If they want to be conservative with his workload, to limit him to between 60-80 pitches per start in the early goings, they can just pull him out after 4-5 innings. The Twins' bullpen is good enough to absorb that for awhile, particularly if it has 7 members. Half a game of Liriano and half of the bullpen should be very competitive against most teams' #2 starter.
3. Boof Bonser
How many times in 2007 did Boof look great for 4-5 innings and then suddenly implode? In innings 1-3, he allowed an OPS of .749. In innings 4-6, it was .882. Only 30 players in all of baseball had an OPS higher than that. The Yankees' team OPS was "only" .829. Eek! Hopefully, Boof's efforts at better fitness this off-season will translate into longer, more successful starts. Otherwise, there will be plenty of replacements in Rochester waiting for their mid-season chance.
4. Kevin Slowey
Slowey's June call-up was completely out of character with the rest of his pro career. In the minors, he had given up 0.43 HR/9 and 1.22 BB/9. In 7 starts before the All-Star break, he gave up 13 HRs and 9 BBs in just 37 innings. No correlation whatsoever with the guy who was absolutely dominating the International League. When he came back up in September, it was a different story. In 6 games, he gave up just 3 HRs and 2 BBs in 29.2 innings, allowing an opponent's BA of just .240. That's more like it. I look for Slowey to be perhaps the steadiest member of the rotation. As long as he can throw strikes and keep the ball in the yard, he'll keep the team in the game.
5. Livan Hernandez
This is not a sexy choice, not someone I'd expect to see in the rotation in August, but he's signed for $5 million, so we're stuck with him. And that won't be such a terrible thing. I'm not convinced that Philip Humber or Brian Duensing are ready just yet, and I think Nick Blackburn is probably overrated at the moment. The other guys in my projected rotation did not fare well in their initial callups:
Baker - 3-3, 3.35 ERA in 53.2 innings in 2005, but then he went 5-8, 6.37 ERA in 83.1 innings in 2006
Liriano - 1-2, 5.70 ERA in 23.2 innings in 2005
Bonser - 2-2, 5.30 ERA in 35.2 innings before the All-Star break in 2006
Slowey - 3-0, 5.80 ERA in 37 innings before the All-Star break in 2007
and I'll throw in
Matt Garza - 3-6, 5.76 ERA in 50 innings in 2006.
All of those guys were kicking butt in AAA prior to their first major-league opportunities, and all benefitted from an additional couple of months there afterwards. So I'd like to see Blackburn, Duensing and Humber put together at least 2 more good months at AAA before I'd give them a shot on the Twins. So Hernandez, the most experienced starter in camp, can do the team a bit of a service by eating innings the way he always has. He can probably manage an ERA of 5.30 or better, so that's likely a better contribution than we can expect from the youngsters in the short term. But he has to be the #5 guy - it's much more important that my 1-4 guys get their regular turn. At Livan's age, it's probably a good idea to skip him whenever possible (it looks like he'll only have to make 8 or 9 starts before June 1). Hopefully, he'll pitch well enough to have some trade value in the summer, and the extra time in Rochester will work out for the next wave of young guys the way it did for Garza and Slowey last year.
Obviously, nobody can be certain what these guys will actually do every 5th day. It's crucial that Liriano return to his 2006 form, even if only for limited innings. Boof has to pitch deeper into games. I think Baker and Slowey are ready to give the team 6+ innings just about every time out, so their games should be a bit less of a concern. The rest is going to fall upon the shoulders of the bullpen.
But that's a topic for tomorrow.