After having the luxury of being able to watch the Twins run off a streak of wins before taking a major league mound for the first time, tonight Armando Gabino will become the tenth pitcher to start a game for Minnesota in 2009.
Gabino's career began quietly, signing with the Cleveland Indians as an undrafted free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2001 when he was 17. He was also a third baseman originally, and was converted to a pitcher in 2003. In 2004, the 20-year old right-hander made his debut in the State-side Indians' system, pitching a decent but unimpressive 19 innings for Burlington, a Cleveland rookie-league squad. He allowed just one home run on 20 hits, walking five and striking out 12. He allowed 13 runs, but only nine were earned.
Left unprotected, the Twins nabbed him in the Rule 5 draft after the season. Whatever he may have shown in those 19 innings, Minnesota must have seen something that caused them to take a flier. They may have even liked him prior, as he played in the Dominican. Making his Twins-system debut in '05, Gabino made just three starts in 17 appearances and was hammered. 45 hits and 12 walks in just 30 innings led to 28 runs, and suffice it to say the Twins started in rookie league for the third consecutive season in '06.
This time, however, five good games (including one start, his last until this season in Rochester) earned him a promotion almost immediately. He spent most of 2006 in Beloit, appearing in relief 16 times while not experiencing significant fluctuations in walk or strikeout rates. His groundball rate did rebound, which helped keep balls in the park.
Excellent walk rates, allowing less than a hit per inning and keeping the ball in the park earned him a promotion after just 22 innings with Beloit in 2007. In Fort Myers, now 23, Gabino continued to excel: 27 hits in 37 innings, just one home run and 25 strikouts earned him his second promotion of the year. In 16 innings in New Britain, Gabino didn't allow a run. He retired 14 on strikes, and generally was on fire.
Minnesota kept him in double-A for the whole of 2008, where he made 49 relief appearances and accumulated 81.1 innings, to the tune of a 3.10 ERA. The walk rates had doubled since Beloit, but he was still excelling at keeping the ball in the park.
This season saw him dropped into triple-A for the first time at 25, eight years after signing with Cleveland. His first 31 appearances were all out of the bullpen, but with Brian Duensing and Anthony Swarzak in Minnesota the Red Wings were in need of starters. In those five starts, Gabino compiled a 2.16 ERA. Impressive, to be sure.
Owning what's been called a "heavy" fastball in the low to mid-90's, a breaking ball and an off-speed pitch, Gabino's "stuff" might actually be better than Swarzak's. When he makes his debut tonight, watch the movement he displays not just on that slider, but on his fastball as well. Right now, the Twins are in desperate need of a guy to step up and fill some empty shoes, and if Armando can strike while the iron is hot, then this will becomes his job to lose.
Good luck tonight, Armando. Pitch your tail off.