Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Livan Large

Well, crap.

No sooner do I post a projected rotation, than the Twins sign Livan Hernandez to a 1-year, $5 million contract (with incentives up to $7 million!). Here, at last, is the dreaded free agent signing, this year's Sidney Ponson/Tony Batista.

We all knew this was coming.

Gardy and the Twins weren't likely to have the nerve to field a rotation full of mostly unproven youngsters, no matter how high their upside. They had already invited Zach Day to camp, and Randy Keisler. Now they add Hernandez, and at $5 million, you can be sure he'll be heading north the last weekend of March.

It's hard to be enthusiastic about a guy who put up a 4.93 ERA in the NL last season. Surely, there are guys who finished last year in Rochester who can do at least as well as that, right?

Well, eventually, yes. But as I pointed out earlier, most of our AAA studs who have rampaged through the minors get lit up pretty badly the first time they run into Major League hitters. In most cases, they benefit from filling out their time at AAA a bit more. I think that's probably the case for Humber, Duensing, and Blackburn, the guys who are closest at the moment.

Humber has so far logged 148 innings above AA, and most of that was spent recovering from Tommy John surgery. I'd feel more comfortable giving him a couple more months in Rochester to get his velocity and K/9 back up toward pre-surgery levels.

Blackburn rocketed through 3 levels of the organization last season, but in so doing has worked just 112.1 innings above AA. His 2007 numbers so far exceeded his career averages, I'd like to see if he can sustain that level of performance for a couple months before considering him fully ready to pitch in the big leagues full time.

Duensing has also been moving quickly through the system. He's amassed just 116.2 innings above AA, and 216.2 innings above A+. If his first 9 starts at Rochester this year are like his first 9 at New Britain in 2007 (4-1, 2.66 ERA, 1.07 WHIP), then the Twins can think about calling him up in June.

Meanwhile, the rest of the rotation I've projected (Baker, Liriano, Bonser and Slowey) is young and inexperienced. Liriano will likely be on a pitch-count to start the year, and Bonser has yet to show an ability to pitch deep into games. I expect the Twins to field a 7-man bullpen, but even that could be taxed if they have to pitch more than 3 innings a night.

Hernandez gives the Twins a veteran starter to appease the manager, and a proven workhorse to save the bullpen every fifth day. His lowest innings total in the past 10 seasons is 199.2 - he leads the majors in IP over that span. Until recently, he'd been pretty effective at keeping runs off the board, too (although he had the good fortune to be playing in some of the better pitcher's parks in the NL). He's likely to give the Twins 6+ innings a start, with an ERA between 4.50-5.00. That's not great, but it's probably better than the younger guys could give if they were rushed to the majors, and then they'd likely be sent down again anyway. This way, they can get their work in at Rochester, and Livan can give the bullpen a rest.

Hopefully, he'll pitch well enough to draw some appealing trade offers from contenders in June and July. Since he'll be a free agent again next year, he'll have every incentive to produce to the best of his ability. The Twins might be able to pick up a couple more nice pieces, make space for a talented (and well-prepared) rookie, and send Livan to a contender. A good deal for everybody.

So, based on the assumption that Livan will not be with the team in August, I think this signing is OK. We'll see how it works out...

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