Monday, March 30, 2009

2009 Twins Preview: Rotation

I'm going to start breaking down the 25-man roster with the rotation this year, since that seems to be the most settled piece of the team at this point. Instead of giving predictions for each player's stats, I'm going to give expected lines, numbers above which I'll be satisfied, below which I'll be disappointed.

#1 - Scott Baker
Baker earned the opening day start by being the Twins' most consistent starter last season, particularly during their stumbling stretch drive in September. He delivered quality starts in 18 of his 28 games (64%), and completed at least 5 IP in 25 of them. His volatile days of 2006 and early 2007 appear to be behind him - since the 2007 All-Star break he's gone 264 IP with a 3.44 ERA, 0.9 HR/9, 6.9 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9. Finally working with the full confidence of his manager, Baker should have no trouble surpassing 200 IP this season. He's going to get hit on certain days, but he'll even that out with shutout brilliance at least as often. I had a lot of confidence in Baker heading into last season, and he certainly didn't do anything to diminish it.
Expected line: 33 GS, 210 IP, 3.75 ERA, 24 HR, 51 BB, 161 K

#2 - Francisco Liriano
Rushed back to the big leagues after sitting out 2007 recovering from Tommy John surgery, Liriano began 2008 with no command and disastrous results in April. He turned things around quickly, and by late June was out-pitching Livan Hernandez to such a degree that Liriano's agent accused the Twins of trying to game his service clock. He finally rejoined the rotation in August, and though he wasn't the otherworldly force we saw in 2006, he was just about unbeatable until his final 3 starts when, like most of the rest of the staff, he ran out of gas. Despite the poor start, his numbers between the Majors and Minors were quite good: 34 GS, 199.1 IP, 3.61 ERA, 15 HR, 188 K, 65 BB. I put no stock in his April numbers; his 11 GS in August and September yielded a 2.74 ERA in 65.1 IP with 60 K, 19 BB and 7 HR, 5 of which came in September when the fatigue had set in. If he can continue to improve his command in 2009, he won't need his 2006 stuff to be an elite pitcher.
Expected line: 33 GS, 210 IP, 3.50 ERA, 18 HR, 65 BB, 200 K

#3 - Kevin Slowey
After an injury forced him to leave his first start early and miss the rest of April, Slowey was nearly as consistent as Baker until his last 2 starts of the year, completing at least 5 IP in 22 of 24 starts during that span, including a team-leading 3 CG. With his K/9 rate climbing to 6.9 in 2008 and his BB/9 leading the league, Slowey's only remaining weakness is his propensity to serve up homers. It's telling that, in his 3 rehab starts at Fort Myers and Rochester, he allowed only 3 ER on 4 H with a 19/4 K/BB rate in 13 IP - 3 of those 4 H were HR. Even the minor leaguers can take him deep. There were many times last year where hitters were able to spoil numerous pitches and extend his pitch count, shortening his outings. He'll need to be able to put people away a little more efficiently to get to the next level. This spring, he's allowed just 2 HR in 20.1 IP with an absurd 20/1 K/BB ratio. In his last spring start, he was able to strike out Albert Pujols with the bases loaded to help escape the jam. Needless to say, if he can keep it up, he'll be on his way to stardom.
Expected line: 33 GS, 200 IP, 4.00 ERA, 28 HR, 35 BB, 150 K

#4 - Glen Perkins
For me, Perkins is the #5 starter, but Nick Blackburn's slow recovery from off-season knee surgery has bumped him down. Perkins has never had the good control of the righties in the rotation, and his strong strikeout numbers never made it past AA. His stellar 12-4 record last year was largely the result of stupendous run support. And yet, like Slowey, he managed to give the Twins at least 5 IP in 21 of 23 starts before crashing in late September. Of the 5 starters, Perkins is the one I'd bet on having a significantly worse season in 2009 - he gives up a lot of hits and walks (1.47 WHIP in '08) and HR (almost 1.5/9 IP) and doesn't strike many guys out (fewer than 4.5/9 IP). And yet, no one is having a better spring: in 26 IP he's allowed just 24 H, 6 BB and 0 HR. I'm not sure how he does it. However well he pitches for the bulk of the season, his biggest test will come in September. He hit the wall so hard last year (3.97 ERA with 18 HR allowed in his first 131.2 IP, 7.45 ERA with 7 HR allowed in his last 19.1 IP) that some have questioned whether he'll have the stamina to finish a full season. But he works so efficiently that he should be able to rack up plenty of innings before he gets to that point.
Expected line: 31 GS, 185 IP, 4.75 ERA, 25 HR, 50 BB, 90 K

#5 - Nick Blackburn
Don't let the .500 record fool you - Blackburn was a much better pitcher than Perkins last year. While their K/9 rates were almost identical, Blackburn gave up the same number of BB and 2 fewer HR in 42.1 more IP. Throwing strikes and pitching to contact enables him to be extremely efficient - it was very common for him to complete 6-7 IP last season with around 90 pitches thrown. Gardy was very soft with him last year, and the lingering knee swelling may foster a little of that at the beginning of this season as well, but with a year of experience under his belt and the relative weakness of the Twins' bullpen, Blackburn should be called upon to pitch even deeper into games this year. Like everyone but Baker, Blackburn struggled in September, but dug deep for a pair of solid games against the White Sox in season's final week. He'll need to show better endurance this season as well, but should have no trouble accumulating innings prior to September, as long as Gardy doesn't keep treating him with kid gloves.
Expected line: 32 GS, 200 IP, 4.50 ERA, 23 HR, 41 BB, 99 K

If everyone in this group can keep taking his turn all season, I think they should accumulate at least a combined 1005 IP with a 4.08 ERA. In a typical season, a staff pitches about 1450 innings, so this rotation sets up the bullpen to have a much easier time in '09 (they had to cover 500 IP last year). Along with what I suspect will be a much improved defense, the starters should be able to reduce the Twins' runs allowed enough to make up for the almost certain drop-off in runs that will result for a lower BA with RISP. If that happens, the Twins should still be able to win around 90 games, and that might be enough this year.

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