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Run Out the Guns

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Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson both exist..but which of the Twins big-league-ready hurler prospects are best suited for the job?

Johan Santana and Carlos Silva are the only two starters, from 2006, with any real history in the Major Leagues.  For the purpose of this comparison, Boof Bonser (who is widely considered the #2 starter) will also be included in the discussion.  I've left some prospects like Simonitsch, Harben, Morlan, Blackburn, Smit, Sosa, etc, off of the list because these seven are the realistic choices (relatively speaking) for filling spots in the Twins' starting rotation.

Minor League Totals
Name      Age   Innings    ERA    K/9   BB/9   HR/9

Bonser     25     885.2   3.63   9.31   4.05   0.86
Baker      25     439.1   2.97   7.52   1.91   0.59
Durbin     25     671.2   3.16   8.14   3.46   0.64
Perkins    24     316.0   3.36   9.63   3.25   0.54
Slowey     23     220.2   3.19   7.89   1.97   0.53
Garza      23     211.1   2.56  10.36   2.26   0.60
Swarzak    21     344.0   3.45   8.61   2.85   0.50

Boof Bonser
2006, MLB
  INN    ERA    K/9   WHIP   BABIP

100.1   4.22   7.53   1.28    .299

Les Flaming Boof is the one guy on this list who is a Sure Shot to make the rotation.  He has the most recent experience at the majors, had some moderate success and started a game in the post season...for which he was awarded with a really cool graphic.  That 4-1, 2.63 ERA September was well timed.

As a rookie, he gave up too many home runs, but he also lent some second-half stability to a rotation grasping at inexperienced straws.  Statistically he aligned as a decent mid-rotation guy who on occasion could shut an offense down.  The fastball isn't over-powering, and thusly is at its most effective when he's able to get a pretty decent breaking ball to snap through the strike zone.  Later in the season, Bonser relied a bit more on the curve as his out pitch, and with confidence threw it very well with an 11-to-5 break.

There's no doubt that Bonser will be in the rotation as the second or third starter.  His stuff may not merit such a high rank, but coming off a season with a 1.28 WHIP and having a 43% GB rate, there's plenty of room for optimism.  Marginal improvement in areas like home runs allowed and walks could make him more than reliable, and 200 innings isn't out of the question.

Scott Baker
2006, MLB
  INN    ERA    K/9   WHIP   BABIP

 83.1   6.37   6.70   1.56    .355

After a promising stint in 2005, Baker's '06 left us feeling a little short changed.  He hadn't struck out an impressive number of hitters in the autumn of a depressing season, but he wasn't allowing many baserunners, either.  Many had their projections for Baker out-gunning Liriano projections for last summer's campaign, largely because of how their cups o' coffee had gone with the Twins.

Just 25 and with only 137 MLB innings under his belt, it's way too early to give up on the young control pitcher.  In fact, glance at these minor league totals for Baker and Bradke.

Name     IP    ERA  WHIP   K/9  BB/9  HR/9   H/9
Radke  251.1  3.21  1.15  6.99  2.04  0.42  8.30
Baker  439.1  2.97  1.11  7.52  1.91  0.59  8.08

There are lots of similar numbers there, and some of Baker's advantages can be chalked up to a stronger farm system; Brad Radke was dropped head-first into a rotation at the age of 22 with Mike Trombly, Frank Rodriguez, Joe Parra and trade bait Kevin Tapani and Scott Erickson.  Yeah...remember 1995?  Let's just not talk about it.

Hoping for Baker to have a career like Radke is a bit optimistic at this point in his career, but the similarities are there.  Neither sent many hitters down on strikes, neither walked many, and neither has a blistering fastball.

There's not much doubt that Baker has the talent to succeed, he just needs to find the poise, confidence and control that made him a top pitching prospect for the Twins just two years ago.  His fastball clocks around 93 mph; fast enough to keep hitters honest while not being fast enough to be much of an out pitch.  While he does throw a slider, his curve is the more effective of his breaking balls and is also his slowest pitch, coming in around 80 mph.

Many of Baker's problems in 2006 were due to his inconsistency in hitting the strikezone.  While it didn't lead to him walking more people, it did lead to longer counts, and eventually a need to come over the strikezone in order to avoid the free pass.  Hitters worked counts, and earned way too many hits.  In 2006, it took Scott Baker 17.26 pitches, on average, to log three outs.

If Baker can cut down on his pitch count, it will go a long way in helping him be much more effective in 2007.  Avoiding so many 2 and 3-ball counts will keep hitters from waiting on that fastball.  At the very least, it's a good start.

J.D. Durbin
2006, AAA
 INN    ERA    K/9   WHIP   BABIP

89.0   2.33   8.19   1.31    .270

For Durbin and the Twins, this is it.  Either he makes the 25-man roster out of spring training, or he finds a new uniform.  Minnesota is out of options with The Real Deal, and the Reality (Deality) of losing a once highly-touted prospect is staring the decision makers square in the eye.

It's now been two full seasons since Durbin's brief debut with the Twins.  He spent all of a mediocre 2005 in Rochester, and did the same in an injury-shortened 2006.  What's sad about 2006 is that it was Durbin's best statistical season in a while, and it couldn't have come at a better time.  Sadly, the injury couldn't have come at a worse time.

Durbin possesses a 95 mph fastball (he's been known to dial it up to 97), and compliments it with something of a slurve that clocks in the low-80's.  His changeup is what needed work when he last saw the majors, and the same is true now.  If he can cut another mile an hour or two off his change, and get it into the 83-84 mph range, it should give him two good pitches to go with his heat.

I can see the Twins trying to make a (real) deal for Durbin if they don't think he's going to make the roster, but if they think there's a chance for him to be successful, they will give him the opportunity with one last attempt into the season.  This could be in a starter's role or as a reliever, but there will be some hesitance to lose a guy who was once thought of so highly.  Durbin needs to have a quality spring training to have a crack.

Glen Perkins
2006, MLB
INN   ERA  K  BB  H

5.2  1.59  6   0  3

Perkins seems to be the sleeper pick to make the rotation in 2007.  In his brief cup last fall, there's no denying he looked incredibly promising.  He didn't seem nervous, he wasn't erratic, and the Twins were confident enough in what he showed them in just 5.2 innings that they gave him a spot on the postseason roster.

Historically, he gives up few hits, and depending on how he feels (or how accurate he is) he can strike hitters out with abandon.  He's smart, savvy, and carries three primary pitches:  Fastball (92-93 mph), curveball, changeup.  If he comes into spring training and puts up anything worth taking note of, he will give Garza and Baker a run for their money.  With Rochester in '06, he induced a 48% GB rate.  If he manages to come close to that this summer, he could be one of baseball's rookie darlings.

I don't personally believe 2007 will be a coming-out party for Perkins, but I do think he'll start a handful of games, reach 100 innings pitched, and post a sub-4.50 ERA.

Kevin Slowey
2006, AA
 INN    ERA    K/9   WHIP   BABIP

59.1   3.19   7.89   1.06    .265

Slowey, with Swarzak, is one of the long shots.  One of a dozen pitchers in the Twins system who are a valuable commodity, Minnesota has no reason to rush him.  He rolled through both Fort Myers and New Britain last summer, and did so quite impressively, striking out 151 in just 148.2 innings, allowing just 102 hits and 21 walks.

What Slowey has going for him is that he has four pitches to throw for strikes, and he hasn't hit AAA yet.  He throws a fastball (low 90's), changeup, sinker and a slider, none of which are particularly a "work in progress".  All of them will need tuning for the future, as there isn't one in particular that stands out as his out pitch, but they all work today.  For a guy at the level he's pitching at in the system, he's incredibly confident in his offspeed pitches.  It's this confidence, and his accuracy, which make him the bright spot that he is.

Even if he has a dominant spring, chances are Slowey will still start the season in Rochester.  He's a control pitcher with not a lot of room to grow in regards to his stuff, but gaining experience in the minors before (probably) making his debut in the fall of 2007 can be nothing but valuable.

Matt Garza
2006, MLB
 INN    ERA    K/9   WHIP   BABIP

50.0   5.76   6.84   1.70    .346

Garza seems to be another favorite, ahead of Perkins and even Baker, and while I can guess I'm not 100% sure why.  Strikeout pitchers are always sexy, especially when they have a great fastball, but running into the spring I don't see how Garza has much, if any, advantage over some of the other front runners.

His 2006 wasn't good and it wasn't bad.  He learned the hard way that fastballs alone don't get you through a lineup.  Or an inning.  But, in combination with two or three average pitches, a great fastball can make you a very good pitcher for a long, long time.

Garza's fastball has a cruising speed of 96 mph, and touches 97 mph a handful of times each game.  He carries a couple of breaking balls and an offspeed pitch, all of which he made honest attempts to throw more often after his first start.  For him to build on an unimpressive 2006, these pitches are going to need to have the bar raised.  Continuing his ground ball tendencies will make him nothing but more dangerous, getting ground balls nearly half the time for most of his extremely brief minor league career:

Lvl  GB%
Rk   50
A    47
A+   47
AA   40
AAA  50

He only had a 38% mark with the Twins last summer, but if he can get that number back up and make some gains on his complimentary pitches, the starting rotation spot is his to lose.

He will earn a spot in the rotation as some point this summer, if the bottom doesn't fall out, and in this scenario 130-150 innings, 120 strikeouts and 10 or 11 wins is reachable.

Anthony Swarzak
2006, A+
  INN    ERA    K/9   WHIP   BABIP

145.2   3.27   8.09   1.31    .300

Last summer, Baseball America rated Swarzak as the 100th best prospect in baseball.  You might say it's a lot like being the last pick taken on the last day of the draft in the last round, but that's not the bad deal everyone makes it out to be.  You still got drafted and you still made Baseball America's list of the top 100 prospects in baseball.  That's pretty damn good.

Swarzak appears to have fallen off a bit in terms of when he's projected to crack the majors, but it isn't by much.  He struggled more than expected in Fort Myers last year, and in large part this was due to a higher walk rate.  His home run rate didn't jump, and his hit rate was lower than his average in the minors so far.  His strikeout rate did drop a shade, a trend at every level since he graduated Beloit.  His WHIP was a moderate 1.31, but only 21-years old in 2007, there's plenty of time for him to make an impact.

As a high school draft pick, Swarzak is entering his fourth year in the Twins system.  I just mentioned he's only 21, and he's compiled more minor league innings than Garza, Slowey or Perkins.  He should start the year in New Britain, as, like Slowey, even an incredible spring won't earn him a slot in the rotation.  He still needs to prove he can handle hitters who are slightly older and more experienced before he's dropped into The Show.

All-in-all, Swarzak could reach the Twins in the fall if he has a good summer.  His fastball sits around 93-94, can touch the mid-90's, and his curveball is able to be thrown for strikes as well.  If he can compliment that with a good changeup, it's not unfathomable that he could see a few innings as a September callup.

Conslusions

Much like everyone else, I believe that Bonser will make the cut, and Garza, Baker and Perkins will be battling it out for the final spot after Santana, Silva and, honestly enough, probably Oritz.  Here's how I order these guys in terms of the most-to-least likely to earn a spot in the rotation:

  1. Boof Bonser
  2. Scott Baker
  3. Matt Garza
  4. Glen Perkins
  5. J.D. Durbin
  6. Kevin Slowey
  7. Anthony Swarzak
The starting rotation has the largest question mark for the success of the Twins.  Even if Bonser turns out to be a solid performer, Minnesota is going to need one or two more of these pitchers to have good statistical years in order to get enough innings and quality from the rotation and the bullpen.  Without a doubt, the talent is there, and combining that talent with youth always breeds optimism.

I smell spring.