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Pitching, Pitching and more Pitching

Tom Kelly often said “you’re only as good as your next day’s starting pitcher.” However, as of a year ago the level of pitching throughout the Twins organization wasn’t an area of strength. The front office, led by Terry Ryan, knew that had to change. Beginning with this past draft and with the Winter Meetings behind us, how that has changed. With several exciting additions the past few weeks, I wanted to take an early look at who the leading candidates are for the starting rotations throughout the organization.

Let’s begin by looking at the numbers. Including players on these rosters as of the end of last year plus the recent additions, the Twins have 59 pitchers slated for their four full season teams. Add seven who are on the 40-man roster who will be in the minors makes it 66. Let’s assume Mr. Ryan signs another free agent starter to go with Vance Worley, Scott Diamond and Kevin Correia. That pushes two of three potential starters (Cole DeVries, Kyle Gibson and Liam Hendriks) also on the 40-man roster back to Rochester for opening day. Another six or so who were with Elizabethton will likely open the season with the Kernels. That makes 74 pitchers battling for four full season teams who collectively will have roster space for 48.

The remaining 26 are destined for Extended Spring Training. They will be joined by another 26 who were with the GCL Twins and Elizabethton plus a half dozen or so newcomers, including those moving up from the 2012 Dominican Summer League. That leaves 58 pitchers for an EST program that carries approximately 25, not including those rehabbing from injuries such as Lester Oliveros and Alex Wimmers. With this many pitchers in camp there could be more than 25 without a spot this spring, assuming there are only a handful of injuries. These numbers don’t include any more AAAA type free agent signings, such as recently signed former big leaguers Scott Elarton, Bryan Augenstein and Michael O’Connor. Terry Ryan was quoted this week in the Star Tribune as stating, “We’ve got numbers.” With numbers like these, the competition in spring training is going to be fierce. Will a few of this large group stand out and dominate so that they can be considered Aces of their respective starting rotations?

So let’s look at who the candidates are for each starting rotation beginning with Rochester. The Red Wings will have three starters who are on the forty man roster, Pedro Hernandez and likely two of the trio battling for the fifth spot in the Twins rotation. Assuming Hernandez is healthy, the remaining two spots will be chosen from a group of six. This group includes four who pitched for the Twins in 2012, Nick Blackburn, Sam Deduno, Esmerling Vasquez and P. J. Walters, plus the recently signed Virgil Vasquez and Scott Elarton, who are former major leaguers attempting comebacks. That’s six pitchers vying for two or three spots in the rotation. With nine experienced starters available for the Red Wings, it will take a special spring from any of the pitchers attempting to move up from AA to make the Rochester opening day starting rotation. And when a spot opens up in the Twins starting rotation, there will be a mix of veterans with major league experience and young prospects to choose from. This starting rotation appears to be an improvement from last season. Will they be good enough to lead the Red Wings back to the playoffs for the second time since they began their affiliation with the Twins ten years ago?

The New Britain Rock Cats return their four top starters from 2012, B. J. Hermsen, Steve Hirschfeld, Logan Darnell and Andrew Albers. Hermsen made 22 starts with an 11-6 record and a 3.22 ERA which earned him the Twins Minor League Pitcher of the Year award. Although Hirschfeld didn’t fare well in a few starts with Rochester, he was 8-9 with a 4.44 ERA in New Britain. Albers missed part of the season, yet went 4-3 with a 3.75 ERA in seventeen starts. Darnell wasn’t as sharp, finishing with a 5.08 ERA in a team high 28 starts and 156.0 innings. He would follow that up however with an excellent performance in the Arizona Fall League where he had a 2-0 record with a 2.45 ERA in nine games. A likely fifth starter is recently acquired Trevor May who spent all of last year with Eastern League rival Reading. May had a 10-13 record with a 4.87 ERA, 151 strikeouts and 78 walks in 149.2 innings. Another potential starter returning to the Rock Cats is Aaron Thompson, who had a 3-8 record with a 5.23 ERA in thirteen starts after missing most of last season. New Britain should also see the return of former first round pick Alex Wimmers. Wimmers should be about a month ahead of the timetable Kyle Gibson was on last year, thus barring setbacks, he should be back with the Rock Cats in July. With the likelihood that May, Hermsen, Hirshfeld, Darnell and Albers will start their seasons in New Britain, any promotions from Fort Myers will have to wait for an opening at AA.

If there aren’t openings with the Rock Cats, Fort Myers will also return its top four starters, Pat Dean (28 starts), Madison Boer (19), Tom Stuifbergen (14), and Matt Summers (8). Recently acquired top prospect Alex Meyer could also begin his Twins career pitching for Miracle Manager Doug Mientkiewicz, considering he had only seven starts with a 2.31 ERA at Hi-A last year. Dean led the Miracle with a 10-8 record and 3.99 ERA in 2012. Boer struggled after moving up from Beloit, where he had a 3.58 ERA, posting a 7-10 record with a 6.41 ERA. Stuifbergen, who again spent a good part of his season on the disabled list, had a 6-7 record with a 5.09 ERA and one complete game. Summers was very good at Beloit earlier in the season where he was 9-4 with a 3.55 ERA in 109.0 innings. With the Miracle, Summers was 2-3 with a 4.81 ERA in 39.1 innings.

A year ago, Adrian Salcedo and Manuel Soliman were two of the four highest ranked pitching prospects in the organization. Unfortunately, they pitched a total of only 30.1 innings for the Miracle. If healthy, both should return to the Miracle with the talent to push Meyer for title of staff Ace. If all seven are healthy, and that’s a big if, someone will have to earn a promotion, move to the bullpen or EST. After posting a 0.87 ERA in 20.2 innings with 36 strikeouts working out of Elizabethton’s bullpen after signing in 2011, Summers could be destined to become a late inning bullpen arm. Is he the most likely to start his season in the bullpen if none of this group can pitch their way up to New Britain?

Last year Jason Wheeler, who was a 2011 eighth round pick, began his professional career in Beloit where he would go on to be Beloit and the Midwest League’s win leader with fourteen (14-6). After leading the Snappers with 156.2 innings while posting a 3.45 ERA, Wheeler certainly has earned a promotion. Tim Shibuya, who was the Appalachian League Pitcher of the Year in 2011, was very good early last year before being injured and missing the last half of the season. Will Wheeler and Shibuya return to the Kernels, begin their seasons in EST or pitch themselves onto the Miracle starting rotation?

Matt Tomshaw, David Hurlbut and Steven Gruver all split time between the Snappers’ bullpen and starting rotation. Tomshaw finished with a 3.02 ERA, Hurlbut, 2.76, and Gruver, 3.61, with Hurlbut possibly the Snappers’ most effective starter at the end of the year. Because they all have experience as relievers all three could begin their seasons in the Fort Myers bullpen, although any or all could also return to Beloit.

Three members of last year’s draft class, D. J. Baxendale (10th round), Mason Melotakis (2nd) and Taylor Rogers (11th) joined the Snappers’ bullpen late last year. Baxendale had a 1.64 ERA with fifteen strikeouts in 11.0 innings. Melotakis had a 2.08 ERA with twelve strikeouts in 17.1 innings. Rogers had a 2.70 ERA in nine games (four starts) with 35 strikeouts in 33.1 innings. Look for all three to be candidates for the Kernel’s starting rotation. Will other exciting arms from the 2012 draft class join them as starters, perhaps Luke Bard or J. T. Chargois?

There will also be a half dozen or so pitchers who will move up from Elizabethton, including three who should contend for spots in the Kernel’s starting rotation. Hudson Boyd had only a 2-5 record, yet posted the Appalachian League’s third best ERA (2.95) in thirteen starts (58.0 innings). Angel Mata finished with a 4-3 record and 3.38 ERA in thirteen starts (53.1 innings). Mata has stepped it up a notch this winter in his native Venezuela where he has a 1.32 ERA in twelve relief appearances. The third candidate for a starting spot for the Kernels is last year’s supplemental round pick, Jose Berrios. After posting a 1.08 ERA in 16.2 innings for the GCL Twins, Berrios moved up to Elizabethton where he had a 2-0 record with a 1.29 ERA in three starts (14.0 innings) with 22 strikeouts and only one walk. Berrios went on to start their first playoff game and was their starter the night they won the championship. Will Berrios move up to Cedar Rapids or because he will still be only eighteen years old on opening day, will the Twins keep him in EST for a few months?

Unlike the top three clubs, there are certainly more questions about who the starting pitchers will be for the Kernel’s first five games as a member of the Twins organization. Fortunately, there are about a dozen excellent prospects for those five spots.

When the Elizabethton Twins begin their season late next June, some of their starters will be pitchers selected in the 2013 draft. The core of their starting rotation, however, will be selected from the most exciting group of arms the GCL Twins have had in my memory. Six young starters, Kuo Hua Lo (1.13 ERA), Randy Rosario (1.64), Sam Gibbons (2.29), Felix Jorge (2.34), Yorman Landa (2.43), and Austin Malinowski (2.27) all had ERA’s of 2.43 or less. When the Appalachian League opens play this year, two will be twenty years old, two nineteen and another two will have turned nineteen only weeks earlier. The 2013 Elizabethton Twins may not have the hitters fans have become accustomed to, however, they will have a stable of very strong young arms.

As we review the likely opening day starting rotations, we see several pitchers who have been with their respective teams for a couple years. With more than five potential starters at every level, they are the most likely to be moved to the bullpen, remain in EST or be released. In terms of looking at the Twins future two, three or four years down the road, we need to focus on the top starters at each level. From Gibson or Hendriks to Boyd and Berrios, every team has a potential ace or two on their roster, such as Hendriks, Hermsen and Wheeler last year. They are the pitchers with the highest upside, pitchers who could be important members of future Twins rotations. I don’t know if the quality of pitching throughout the organization has returned to what it was during its glory years. But if it hasn’t, it is getting very close.

I suspect some of you are going to be concerned that the veterans at Rochester are blocking young talent at New Britain, Fort Myers and beyond. While that is a legitimate concern, the Twins should be able to deal with that once we get past the first month or so of the season. Should someone be lights out in spring training, I am confident the Twins will promote them following spring training or move them up quickly once the season begins.

On a personal note, I want to thank everyone for your heart warming comments left when I posted my final weekly report a few months ago. After a few weeks recuperating in Hilton Head, I am back to normal. I also want to send my condolences to all involved in yesterday's tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut.

Although my weekly reports won’t be returning, I will be posting something about the minor leagues from time to time. In closing, I want to wish each of you a Merry Christmas and best prospects for the New Year.