Sunday, January 3, 2010

Buena Noticia

When Carl Pavano accepted the Twins' arbitration offer in December, he locked up a spot in the 2010 rotation and about $7 million of the money the team might have used to find a true #1 starter. We must assume that they will have to construct their rotation from players currently under team control. That will probably be Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Pavano and Nick Blackburn in the first 4 slots. I would rate them as a #2, 2 (nearly identical) #3s, and a #4. Not bad, but not something that matches up with Zach Greinke, Jake Peavy or Justin Verlander.

The last rotation spot figures to go to either Francisco Liriano, Brian Duensing, Glen Perkins or Anthony Swarzak. Liriano was unhittable prior to his 2006 TJS, then struggled with his control early in his return in 2008 before locking in and being very good for most of the summer. But he had a lousy 2009, posting the worst numbers of his career in terms of control (4.3 BB/9) and keeping the ball in the yard (1.4 HR/9). He failed to make the necessary adjustments all season, putting up ERAs over 5.00 in every month but June, and was shut down for several weeks in mid August. He was usually very effective in his first inning of work, however, holding opposing hitters to a .625 OPS over the first 15 pitches of an outing. This has many people calling for him to be moved to the bullpen, where he could certainly be an asset.

But which of the other rotation candidates can match his upside? Even with his decreased post-surgery velocity, Liriano put up a 2.74 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 8.2 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9 in 11 GS in late 2008. That's a better performance than Baker gave over the same period - and he was largely carrying the team down the stretch. Duensing almost matched that performance in his 9 GS for the Twins last year - he only came up short on the K/9 (5.6). But the numbers from those 9 starts so far exceed what he was able to do in 56 GS at AAA, I don't think we can expect that level of success to continue. He's reached his ceiling, and it's a 5th starter. Perkins isn't any better, thanks to his inconsistency, and he may not be durable enough to make 33 starts in a year, and he pissed off the coaching staff by concealing his injuries - he looks like the last resort. Swarzak projected as a #3 starter a couple of years ago, but his K numbers have tailed off significantly at the upper levels. He has a big adjustment to make before he can be successful at the Major League level - and even then he's mid-rotation at best.

The only guy with a shot at making the rotation this April who has the talent to be an ace is Liriano. Baker has been described as a weak #1 or a strong #2. If Liriano can pull it together, and pitch a little better than Baker, then the Twins will at least have an average #1, strong #2, solid #3 (whether it's Slowey or Pavano), strong #4, and strong #5. They'll have a rotation that will match up with the best in the division. Liriano regaining his 2008 form is, for me, one of the biggest keys to the 2010 season.

So my excitement has been steadily growing as I've followed his exploits in the Dominican Winter League over the past month:

12/05: 3.0 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 0 HR, 1 BB, 6 K
12/10: 3.2 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 0 BB, 5 K
12/16: 5.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 1 BB, 6 K
12/26: 5.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 1 BB, 3 K
01/02: 5.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 1 BB, 7 K
01/07: 6.0 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 1 BB, 8 K
01/13: 6.0 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 0 BB, 6 K
Total: 33.2 IP, 19 H, 2 ER, 0 HR, 5 BB, 41 K, 0.53 ERA, 0.71 WHIP

No HR allowed, and over 30 IP without allowing an ER. That K/BB ratio is the best we've seen from him since 2006. Has something clicked? Or is he just facing shoddy winter ball competition?

The DWL is a pitcher's league: for the 50 game regular season, the average hitter batted .265/.333/.364, and there were just 0.45 HR per game. The very low power numbers (0.99 IsoP) suggest that the typical hitter is a slappy contact hitter who occasionally finds a gap, kinda like Alexi Casilla, who is playing for one of Liriano's rivals. These rosters tend to be filled with journeymen, prospects and bench players, guys trying to prove that they can be better than they showed last season. I don't know exactly what the level of play equates to, but I'm guessing it's somewhere between AA and AAA. Nothing a quality MLB pitcher should have trouble with.

Still, the average pitcher had a 3.72 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 0.5 HR/9, 3.2 BB/9 and 6.3 K/9, so you can see just how drastically better Liriano is pitching than everyone else. And those numbers are in line with what he was doing when he was pitching at the upper levels in 2005, when everyone was beginning to get excited about him as a prospect. That was his age 21 season; he'll be 26 in 2010. Too old to expect much more growth, but just the right age to expect peak performance.

I would love to know what the scouts are seeing from him down there. Has he made an adjustment in his mechanics? Has he recovered some of his pre-surgery velocity? If he has, and he can sustain those improvements into the 2010 season, the Twins' rotation troubles from 2009 could be over.

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