The Twins entered this offseason with more holes than Carlos Gomez's swing, and you can argue that the rotation ranks right at the top of the list. Every Twins starter aside from Carl Pavano spent time on the DL in 2011, and it's not as if health was their only issue. Brian Duensing allowed an absurd .947 OPS to right-handed hitters, Nick Blackburn racked up a staggering 11.1 H/9, and Francisco Liriano lost all semblance of control on the mound. Scott Baker saw his best season cut short by yet another injury, and even Pavano -- despite his health -- led the American League in hits allowed by a count of 32.
A look at the free agent market doesn't reveal much in the way of big names, but if you look a little deeper, there's a long shot to reel in some ace-caliber innings.
If there was a pitcher on the market who ranked in the all-time Top 10 K/9 ratios that could provide 200 innings, odds are he'd require a salary upwards of $15M-$20M per year, depending on age. But why do we focus so much on finding one source for that result? If the goal is to accumulate 200 innings, does it need to be limited to one pitcher?
Erik Bedard and Rich Harden are both tremendous injury risks. They're also both 80 innings or less from ranking in the Top 10 all-time strikeout ratios and combined for 212 innings with 216 strikeouts in 2011. There's no guarantee they combine for 200 innings again in 2012, but Bedard fired 129 frames, and Harden didn't miss a start after his July 1 debut. I'd like to see the Twins sign 'em both.
Harden may have posted an unsightly ERA, but his 3.68 xFIP suggests that he was plagued by his unnaturally high 15.6% HR/FB (league average and Harden's career mark are both around 10%). If the Twins can provide Harden, an extreme flyball pitcher, with a strong trio of defenders, he should be able to flourish at Target Field (when healthy). Adding a guy like David DeJesus would make a terrific outfield defense to compensate for Harden's affinity for aerial outs. Beyond that, Harden carried a reverse platoon split last year, and we know how unforgiving the left-center field power alley can be in Minneapolis. It's also worth noting that his velocity was up from a disastrous 2010, and was even stronger at the end of the season. And, for those still skeptical of Harden's ability based on his sky-high home run rates and ERA, keep this in mind: he had the nightmarish task of facing the Rangers or Yankees in 33% (5/15) of his starts. Two of those starts came at Yankee Stadium, with another coming in Arlington. That's a tough draw.
Bedard recovered from missing the whole 2010 season to throw 129.1 solid innings for the Mariners and Red Sox. Though his velocity was slightly down, he showed his best control (3.3 BB/9) since his Baltimore days, and he still managed to whiff an impressive 8.7 hitters per nine innings. Those kind of strikeout numbers are precisely the kind the Twins need to pursue.
Obviously, signing both players would mean a new-look rotation, at least for the beginning of the season when both (hopefully) are healthy. Pavano and Baker both deserve rotation spots, and Liriano's upside is too great to slot him elsewhere, despite his maddening inconsistency. That means that Duensing and his platoon split are likely returned to the bullpen, and Blackburn joins him as the long reliever. Yes, paying $4.75M to a long reliever is excessive, but realistically, the Twins can still expect Blackburn to make 15-20 starts because it's likely that Bedard and Harden will both miss time, and/or that Liriano will continue to struggle. Depth isn't a bad thing.
A rotation of Baker, Bedard, Harden, Pavano, and Liriano gives the Twins four starters who are capable of striking out eight or more per nine innings pitched (Pavano being the obvious exception), and would likely be possible by committing no more than a pair of one-year deals to the two newest members. I'd imagine Harden's guarantee wouldn't exceed $2M, while Bedard could require somewhere in the $5M-6M range. Both would obviously require further incentives based on innings pitched.
The odds of that rotation staying healthy for a whole season are virtually non-existent, but looking at the combination of Bedard and Harden as one entity who would cost about $7M-8M on a one-year deal gives the Twins a chance to field a competitive rotation that can be tough on any team in a short series. Obviously, there are numerous holes that still need to be filled (Justin Morneau insurance, right field, backup catcher, bullpen), but this is one way to cheaply gamble on some rotation upside. The Twins are probably in deep trouble if Morneau, Denard Span, and Joe Mauer aren't healthy anyway, but with a $100M+ payroll in the third year of a new stadium, I for one feel they should be trying to compete rather than rebuild. If those three come back healthy in 2012, and there's no rotation upgrades, that'll be a shame.
One plus to paying for veterans on one-year deals like this is that even if they work out to some extent and your team still struggles, they become part of the rebuilding process by becoming attractive trade chips. If it blows up, they're off the books before the 2012-2013 offseason -- a free agent class that looks much more appealing.
Am I crazy to actually be pulling for the Twins to sign two major injury risks? Probably. But hopefully they can provide as much as one solid rotation addition would at a below-market rate.
And, what pitcher wouldn't want to attempt to re-establish value in a park like Target Field? The Twins could very well be an attractive option to both targets, and both should be attractive to the Twins.
Steve Adams also writes for MLBTradeRumors.com and is a contributor for MLB.com Fantasy Baseball and 612sports.net. You can follow him on Twitter: @Adams_Steve