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2006 Team Preview: Minnesota Twins, Pitchers

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I'm, unfortunately, not going to get to do all that many more of these; life is about to get in the way, in a BIG way. How do I address this?

  1. Sleep less often.
  2. Write less often, and more incoherently.
I'll do my best to be coherent, but it's difficult when you're writing about the Twins' pitching staff, and you just want to shout to the heavens that...
  1. ... Johan Santana is the best pitcher in baseball. I guess we'll start with the obvious: his #1 and #2 PECOTA comps are Tom Seaver and Pedro Martinez. That's damn good company. Santana throws three pitches and his change-up is simply a thing of beauty, coming in around 75 mph. His heat is in the mid-90s. Statistically, he's rock solid. Great control, excessively high strikeout rates, limits homers well enough (although he is a FB pitcher). Fantasywise, he's been consistently better in the second half at this stage of his career, but in real life, he's just unbelievable. He may be unseated at the top of the league by King Felix in the next couple of years, but for now, the real King holds court in Minnesota. And he might not be ceding that throne just yet.
  2. Santana has good control. Brad Radke has great control, among the best in the league. He's walked right around 1.05 batters per 9 innings over the last two seasons, seasons which showed some warning signs. Yeah, the control was slightly better, but Radke's struggling with the longball again (1.48 HR/9 on a 1.08 G/F ratio), and his strikeout rate took a substantial hit last year. He's been in Minnesota forever, and for a number of years, he would have been a good example of a quintessential middle-of-the-rotation starter, possibly a #2. He's probably still in the middle, closing in on league average but still a little better. Keep an eye on the strikeouts, though; he's giving up too many homers to be able to sustain success if he starts putting too many more on base via balls in play. If you were buying or selling stock, it would be time to sell on Radke. As a baseball player, though, a 113 ERA+ (his career average) seems possible for the aging veteran.
  3. Radke has great control. In 2005, Carlos Silva had superhuman control, walking... NINE batters all year. I really want to embrace the Carlos Sliva thing, I do. I love pitchers who don't walk anyone, and Silva was historically good at it last year. He's also just 26 years old, and he mercifully is a groundball pitcher. But you have to ask yourself: what's the ceiling for a guy whose entire game is founded on not walking anybody? Two things: One is that Silva's probably going to walk more than 9 next year. Two is a nice little red flag number: when the ERA is greater than the K/9, you might have a potential problem. I can't see Silva getting a 3.44 ERA. PECOTA projects huge regression (4.58 ERA) and very little chance at a breakout. I can't say that I disagree with that. But for the time being, we should appreciate was Silva is: a good, middle of the rotation starter with incredible control, who probably just had his best season in 2005.
  4. They're really starting Kyle Lohse instead of Francisco Liriano? Let's be honest about Lohse. He's still young (27), and he just had the best season of his career. He posted a 4.18 ERA. Struck out just 11.2% of the batters he faced, which is one of the league's lowest totals and which has dropped off in back to back seasons. Has good, but not great control. Doesn't limit the longball. BABIPs against of .290+ each of the last three seasons. His component-ERAs appear to be randomly aligned with his ERAs rather than consistently higher or lower. So basically, we have a very ordinary pitcher, one who doesn't do anything particularly well, but does everything slightly above or below average. Except striking people out. And yet, he still managed to post a 4.18 ERA last year, and he's an OK back of the rotation guy. I have my doubts that he will be in the rotation come July, but, those aside, Lohse is an OK pitcher, and an acceptable fourth starter. There's a problem with this, though, and we'll get there in a moment.
  5. Scott Baker did a darn good job with his Grande cup of coffee last year, taking 53.2 innings and fashioning a 3.35 ERA. He exhibited good control and certainly held his own in the strikeout department. One thing to keep in mind: Rochester in the IL is a pitcher's park, and a dramatic one at that. It generally limits homers, and Baker surrendered 15 in 134 innings. Confirming my fears is the fact that Baker is a flyball pitcher with merely adequate strikeout rates. I don't know if that will be a problem for him this year, but Baker's performance last year certainly earned him a spot, and he's better than a lot of pitchers that will get considerably more hype. He's no ace, though, and his ceiling isn't quite that high.
And that's basically the problem for the Twins. They have Santana, who is an absolute stud, and then 4 adequate supporting characters, guys who could probably give the Twins 775 innings at the league average or better, even. But the problem is that for this team to win enough games to compete in the Central this year, they'd need to have the best pitching in the league. Their hitting just isn't good enough to compensate. The only guy in the mix for the rotation with real ace potential is Liriano. It's doubtful that he'd achieve it this year, but the only way that they'd stand a significant chance in this division is with the addition of a big bat or two, or a combination of Morneau, Mauer, and fantastic pitching carrying them through a tough race. It's just not very likely.

Onto the bullpen...

I recently noted that Joe Nathan is a top closer without the name recognition. I'll stand by that. There's no closer I'd rate as "distinctively better than Nathan," although there are a couple that are a little better. Still, Twins fans have to love the fact that he's striking out more than 34% of the batters he faces, and he's keeping the ball in the yard. Nathan's a championship-caliber closer, no doubt about it... This is an unheralded bullpen, but it has a couple of talented arms. Enter Juan Rincon, with similar strengths to Nathan and a few years less experience. Is there anyone better at finding and developing young pitching than the Twins? They signed him way back in '96, moved him to the 'pen for the 2003 season, and he's been great ever since. Yeah, he tested positive, but he's a good pitcher and one of the better setup men you'll find... Jesse Crain logged a 2.8 K/9 last year, even though he throws really hard. He also logged 12 wins, somehow. A .220 BABIP will do that. You don't need to look at a forecast, projection, or anything to know that none of that adds up. That said, he throws 100 mph, so all of this could be pretty pointless if he puts it all together... Matt Guerrier combined with Terry Mulholland last year to pick up a lot of the low-leverage innings (.75 LEVERAGE), as Rincon, Crain, Romero, and Nathan nailed down the more important one. It doesn't appear that Guerrier is going to need to do much more than that this year, he's not taxed in this role and he's certainly a serviceable pitcher. He could probably spot start if needed, too... And so we get to Francisco Liriano, arguably the game's best pitching prospect. His cup of coffee saw a 5.70 ERA, but most importantly, 35% of the batters he faced struck out. By 2007, Liriano and Santana could be the league's most dominant pitching duo. This year, he'll start in the 'pen.

The Twins' pitching staff is anchored by the league's best pitcher and one of its' best closers. The other pitchers are generally unremarkable, but they're solid enough to make this one of the league's better staffs. The Twins still need to hit, though, and unless they prove that they can, they're clearly the third best team in the division.