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Pitching turnaround

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Just as the Twins struggled developing middle infielders through the draft in the 1990s, they struggled to develop pitchers. As a Twins fan, I watched one prospect after another come up through the system and fail: Pat Mahomes, Todd Ritchie, Dan Serafini, Latroy Hawkins, Mike Trombley, Mike Lincoln, Travis Miller, Dan Naulty, Benj Sampson, and the list goes on.

Some of those guys did OK after leaving the Twins. Some did OK when the Twins got a new (ahem) pitching coach. But the main problem was quantity: The Twins organization did not produce enough decent arms to survive the failure of the few they had. One out of every two pitchers who does well in the minors makes the adjustment to the majors for any length of time. If you have four good prospects a year, you'll get two guys who stick. Quantity's what the Twins needed in the absence of money to buy pitchers on the free agent market. If they were lucky, they got two guys coming up and one making it in any given year. And they were not that lucky.

Even the "can't miss" pitchers that came to the Twins via trade missed. Frankie Rodriguez had one decent year and two horrible ones and never was heard from again. Dave Stevens <shudder> did his best to remind us of Ron Davis. And then there's the inexplicable mystery of how Scott Klingenbach got even a major league cup of coffee.

The only pitchers the Twins called up in the 90s who put together good careers were Scott Erickson (1990), Eddie Guardado (1993) and Brad Radke (1995). Hawkins got six opportunities to fail before succeeding under the only pitching coach on the planet who could help him. Ritchie and Trombley had success after suffering the humility of being let go by the Twins in the 90s. Lincoln also was released and had a few decent years for out of the Pirates bullpen. But when all was said and done, the Twins developed three decent pitchers in the 90s.

And to add insult to injury, the Twin's 1998 and 2000 draft choices were complete busts. Both were used on "can't miss" pitching prospects in the top 10 overall in the draft. Neither prospect survived more than a cup of coffee in the majors.

But as Old Lodge Skins said in Little Big Man "Let us not speak of that unfortunate time."

I always say Terry Ryan's greatest virtue is patience. And he was patient with Mike Radcliff, who had one good draft in his first decade on the job (1994, when the Twins acquired Hunter). Even after 2000, when the Twins drafted Adam Johnson, a couple of Millers, a kid named Kubel and little else, Ryan stuck with Radcliff. To be fair to Radcliff, signability was a much bigger issue prior to 2001 than it is now. He had to draft kids that he knew he could sign. That left him with slim pickings in an organization that had not had a winning record in nearly a decade.

At any rate, Ryan has been rewarded for his patience. Things since 2001 have taken a U turn for the better. In 2001, he couldn't help but have a good draft because he held the first overall pick. Mauer alone makes 2001 a successful draft. But from 2002 on, the Twins have had top-tier drafts despite drafting in the 20s. And, determined to reverse a pattern that left the Twins pitching staff full of imports, the Twins drafted an unprecedented number of quality arms since 2001.

Five years later, these arms are poised to transform this pitching staff into one of the youngest and best in the game. The following is a break down of the drafts from 2002 on from a pitching perspective.

2002
Jesse Crain (second round) has been one of the top set-up men in the game for the past two seasons. Pat Neshek (sixth round) is another top reliever on the Twins.

2003
Scott Baker (second round) is pitching very well in AAA after a mostly successful quick rise through the system. David Shinskie (fourth round) has struggled in the system to date, but he has hung around because of his excellent stuff. If he ever learns to harness it... Erol Simonitsch (sixth round) is a finesse lefty who has had a solid minor league career and is repeating AA because of opportunity rather than ability. Both Kevin Culpepper (ninth round) and Lavale Spiegner (14th round) were drafted in the Rule V draft in the offseason, but might return during the year if they cannot stay with their teams.

2004
This is the proverbial mother lode. The Twins had five first-round picks and used four of them on pitching. Stillwater native and former Gopher Glen Perkins has had a stellar career in the minors (with one hiccup last year) and is now pitching well in long relief for the Twins. Fellow first-round pick Kyle Waldrop is one of the top starters in the Florida State League and the top pitcher for the Fort Myers Miracle. Sandwich Pick Matt Fox is still trying to recover from major shoulder surgery. But he could emerge quickly, as Joe Nathan once did. The second sandwich pick was Jay Rainville, who has also had surgery, but his was not structural. He is now pitching very well for the Miracle. Second round pick Anthony Swarzak was flying through the system until he got in trouble with recreational drugs. Hopefully his 50-game suspension in New Britain will be the end of his use and he can return to a bright career. Third-round pick Eddie Morlan is the closer at Fort Myers and has but one blemish to his name so far. Patrick Bryant, Jay Sawatski, Kyle Aeselton, and Tim Lahey are still with the organization and have shown flashes of brilliance. Of the four, Sawatski has the best chance of donning a Twins uniform because he is a quality lefty bullpen arm. Still, even if four of the pitchers selected in this draft make a major league contribution, the Twins did very well.

2005
After loading up on pitching in 2004, the Twins had a more conventional mix of players in 2005. But they still managed to grab a handful of very good pitching prospects in this draft. The class was led by first-round pick Matt Garza, who should be in the Twins rotation right now, but is pitching well in AAA while working on his breaking pitches. Like 2004, the Twins had several extra picks in 2005. And they used one of their extra second-round picks to draft Kevin Slowey. Slowey has had an incredibly successful pro career that puts him right in the mix of arms ready to help at the major league level when needed. Currently, he's lights out at AAA. The Twins also had an extra third-round pick in this draft, one of which they used to take Brian Duensing, who's pitching very well at New Britain. The other third-round pick, fellow lefty Ryan Mullins has struggled a bit at each level. But he is on track for a college kid, it's just that compared to Crain, Baker, Perkins, Garza, Slowey, and Duensing, his progress seems slow. The Twins also drafted some high school talent in this round that might take more time. Alex Burnett and Brian Kirwan are both top talents who could end up in a Twins uniform in a few years.

2006
The 2006 draft was the opposite of the 2004 draft. Though the 2004 draft focussed on pitching, the 2006 draft focussed on hitting. Still, the Twins acquired a few additional arms that project as major league pitchers. They spent their third-round pick on a big high school lefty by the name of Tyler Robertson. So far, we have only seen his work in the GCL, but his size and early success suggest great things. Despite the Twins emphasis on bats, the jewel of the 2006 draft will likely be 14th round pick Jeff Manship. I won't go into why he slipped into the 14th round. But he's pitching like a first rounder for Beloit and should move quickly through the system as other college pitchers have in recent years. The other steal of 2006 is lefty Cole DeVries, who was not even drafted out of the U of MN, despite putting up great numbers in the Big Ten. After signing as a free agent with the Twins last summer, he's now the number 2 starter behind Manship at Beloit and should join him in Fort Myers sometime this summer.

So in a little more than a half a decade, the Twins have acquired six times the number of pitching through the draft than they were able to develop in all of the '90s. Radcliff should be proud of the work he's done. And Ryan should be pleased with the patience he's shown his scouting director.