Scott Baker pitched his final tuneup before his opening night start for the AAA club on Wednesday. He threw 5 scoreless innings, allowing just 3 H and striking out 4. We woke up Thursday morning to find that he had been placed on the 15-day DL with shoulder stiffness.
They didn't even want to wait 24 hours to see if he felt better? This move strikes me as an overreaction. But it certainly clarifies the remainder of the Twins' (now justifiably, at least temporarily) 12-man pitching staff. Liriano will shift up 1 slot to opening night, Blackburn will pitch Tuesday instead of Friday, and RA Dickey will make the club as the #5 for the first time through the rotation. (Wouldn't it make more sense for Dickey to start on Tuesday against Seattle? Not only would that minimize the disruption in routine for Blackburn, but it would get Dickey's knuckler indoors, where it will supposedly be more effective. I can't shake the feeling that the Twins are really hoping that Dickey will blow it one of these outings so that they can have some evidence for why he should be at Rochester.) Philip Humber and Brian Duensing both make the bullpen:
Closer - Joe Nathan
At this point, I would say that the AJ Pierzynski trade with the Giants would have been a great trade for the Twins if it had been for just Nathan straight up. He's been among the top closers in baseball since coming the Twins in 2004, 4 times posting ERAs under 2.00 and never allowing more than 5 HR in a season or posting a K/BB ratio lower than 3.86. The shoulder discomfort that kept him out of the WBC was scary and is something we'll have to keep an eye on, but at this point there's no indication that he's not 100%. And 100% of Joe Nathan is awfully good.
Expected line: 70 IP, 2.00 ERA, 5 HR, 20 BB, 75 K
RHP - Jesse Crain
I was pleased with what Crain was able to bring in 2008, less than a year after undergoing major shoulder surgery. His velocity was high, he had good movement on his pitches, and he was able to slightly surpass his K/9 from 2006, though his walk rate was the worst since 2005. It's easy to look at his 2008 and remember the consecutive losses he suffered early in the Twins' disastrous 14-game road trip in late August, but he was excellent in 9 September appearances and has looked very sharp this spring. I believe he'll get a chance to hold the 8th inning setup job to start the season, and he looks as though he can handle it as well as anyone the Twins have right now.
Expected line: 70 IP, 3.50 ERA, 6 HR, 25 BB, 55 K
LHP - Craig Breslow
Claiming Breslow off waivers in May was the only incontrovertibly good move Bill Smith has made in his brief tenure as GM of the Twins. A high-strikeout guy who was hurting himself with walks, he only needed the tutelage of pitching coach Rick Anderson to bring them down from about 6 BB/9 to 3.25. He didn't allow any ER over his final 12 IP, and has looked just as good this spring. Regrettably, he's slotted in for the Dennys Reyes role, i.e. get the lefty out. I say regrettable, because Breslow's performance against righties suggests that he might be a very effective 7th or 8th inning guy, rather than just wasting him on 1 or 2 matchups. Hopefully, Gardy will use him more liberally than he did Reyes, but I'm reluctant to expect anything more than Reyes numbers from him this year.
Expected line: 50 IP, 3.00 ERA, 2 HR, 20 BB, 40 K
RHP - Matt Guerrier
Perhaps no single Twin was more responsible for the team coming up just short last season than Matt Guerrier. A long reliever in 2005-06, he stepped into Jesse Crain's role in 2007 and enjoyed the lowest ERA and WHIP of his career while landing among the league leaders in IP among relievers. He attempted to fill Pat Neshek's shoes last year, and did rather well for about half the season before the previous year's workload seemed to catch up to him. On June 30th, he was 4-2 with a 2.95 ERA. From that game on, his ERA ballooned to 7.45 as he suffered 7 excruciating losses. It sounds like they'll try to use him a little less this season, and certainly keep him away from high leverage situations. He's looked good his last few outings this spring, so I'm optimistic he'll be able to bounce back closer to the performance we grew accustomed to in previous seasons.
Expected line: 70 IP, 4.00 ERA, 9 HR, 25 BB, 55 K
RHP - Luis Ayala
The Twins went looking (sort of) for bullpen help this offseason, and Ayala is what they found. Like Guerrier, he's coming off of the first crappy season of his career, having been a part of the Mets' late-season melt-down that cost them a playoff spot. Glancing at his stats, there's nothing that jumps out to explain why his ERA should have nearly doubled. He had similar K/9, pitches per plate appearance and inning, and better BB/9 numbers than in some of his earlier, successful seasons. He allowed a higher BAA and HR/9, but not so much higher that they would explain that kind of performance. Mostly, it seems like he just didn't strand as many runners as usual, and that's the sort of thing that can really change year-to-year. He should be more or less back to his career norms this year.
Expected line: 75 IP, 4.00 ERA, 8 HR, 17 BB, 50 K
RHP - Philip Humber
It would be stretching things to say that Humber earned a spot on the team this spring. But since he was one of the components of the Johan Santana trade with the Mets, the Twins are loath to let him just slip away on waivers, so here he is. He was the 3rd overall pick in the 2004 draft, but almost immediately had to undergo Tommy John surgery. The Mets scooted him up to AAA after just over 150 pro IP anyway, and he responded by leading the PCL in WHIP in 2007. No such luck in the pitcher-friendlier IL, where he bounced in and out of the rotation for Rochester before finishing the summer strongly and pitching decently in a September call-up. I have no idea what kind of reliever he'll be, but I'm not expecting too much.
Expected line: 70 IP, 4.50 ERA, 10 HR, 23 BB, 50 K
RHP - R.A. Dickey
The Twins signed Dickey to minor-league deal last winter, only to have the Mariners promptly steal him in the Rule 5 draft. Like all the M's pitchers, Dickey had a lousy season, but the Twins brought him back to camp this year. What were they hoping to see from him? Whatever it was, he surely exceeded it. In 17.2 IP this spring, he has a 2.04 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 9.17 K/9 and 2.04 BB/9. Those numbers far surpassed anything the other bubble guys put up, and yet Scott Baker had to get hurt before the Twins would give Dickey a spot on the team. It'll be a tough assignment pitching in Chicago. Even if he succeeds, I don't know if the Twins will really want to keep him up. Has he perfected his knuckleball, or have the conditions just been favorable this spring? I have to doubt he can continue to do what he's done in March.
Expected line: 20 IP, 5.00 ERA, 3 HR, 8 BB, 15 K
LHP - Brian Duensing
A typical product of the Twins' system, Duensing has excellent control (2.2 BB/9) and pitches to contact (6.5 K/9). He was at AAA less than 2 years after he was drafted, but took a step backward in his full season there in 2008. With Jose Mijares falling by the wayside, the Twins would like to give Duensing a shot at the bullpen, a la Glen Perkins in 2007, rather than send him back for a third season at AAA. He had a pretty nice spring in terms of ERA, but allowed BB and HR at a much higher rate and amassed K at a much lower rate than he had with the Red Wings. That does not spell success against major league hitters. Though they'll try to set him up for success by having him face primarily LH batters, that did not help him vs. Carlos Pena earlier this week. I think we're in for a repeat of Baker circa 2006 here. Mercifully, it shouldn't last long.
Expected line: 25 IP, 5.50 ERA, 5 HR, 9 BB, 12 K
Overall, I think we're in store for only a slightly better performance from the 'pen in 2009. However, it should be easier to hide the shortcomings, because the starters will be doing a lot more, and the defense behind them should be better as well. Look for the Twins' runs allowed to go way down this year, to around 700. That should just about make up for the inevitable drop in runs scored.