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The Starting Pitcher Woes

The Twins have struggled to cobble together a decent starting rotation for several years now. I feel these issues stem from too much reliance on National League pitchers and the inability to develop their own talent.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since the unexpected collapse of the 2011 squad, the Twins have been lacking in starting pitching. 2010 saw the Twins use 9 different starting pitchers that season, but three of those (Matt Fox, Jeff Manship, and Glen Perkins) made only one start and the remaining six had 13 starts or more apiece. Led by Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano, and a surprising contribution by Brian Duensing, no one ever raised a fuss over the rotation being an issue. Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey had mid-4 ERAs, but the real weak link was Nick Blackburn, who had a 5.42 ERA over 26 starts and 2 relief appearances.

The following season was when the pitching started to fall apart. Scott Baker and Carl Pavano were solid again as starters, but everyone else was pretty mediocre to poor. The Twins attempted to make Duensing a full-time starter and that blew up. Liriano forgot how to pitch. Blackburn was better but still mediocre. Slowey pissed off the entire Twins organization and seemingly every sportswriter in Minnesota. It wasn't a pretty sight.

From then on, things did not get better. 2012 was the year where Scott Diamond and Samuel Deduno emerged, and Cole De Vries was decent for half of the season, but we also were subjected to Jason Marquis. Liriano didn't improve, and now it was Pavano's turn to forget how to pitch. Duensing was given 11 more starts and was still bad.

Last year we had to suffer through Mike Pelfrey, Diamond, Pedro Hernandez, and Vance Worley, which ruined solid years from Kevin Correia, Deduno, and Andrew Albers. Perhaps a good way to illustrate the collapse of the starting rotation is by showing the team's rotation ERA and MLB rank ever since their last playoff appearance in 2010.

2010: 4.17 ERA (16th)

2011: 4.64 ERA (26th)

2012: 5.40 ERA (29th)

2013: 5.26 ERA (30th)

2014: 4.97 ERA (29th)

Not pretty. Through it all, though, I found something interesting. While the Twins have often used minor league pitchers and homegrown players to fill out the rotation, their outside help has almost always came with significant National League experience. This to me seems like the wrong strategy to use, as the NL pitchers get to face other pitchers instead of the designated hitter. Going from the NL to the AL is tougher than vice-versa, which is why a pitcher looking to reclaim his past success will move to the NL rather than stick in the AL (going to the Mariners excluded).

Despite this obvious fact, the Twins have continuously gone with the career NL pitchers to fill out their rotation, with the recent exception of Phil Hughes. Starting again from the 2010 team, here's how they had acquired all the pitchers that made at least 10 starts, unless the player was a free agent acquisition. The AL/NL designations refer to the league that the player had played his majority of his career prior to joining the Twins, and each category refers to how the player was originally acquired. Therefore, Carl Pavano is continuously designated as a trade acquisition, even though he did sign a contract extension with the Twins.


Draft: Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing

Trade: Carl Pavano (NL)

Minor league signing/trade: Francisco Liriano

Free agent: None


Draft: Brian Duensing, Nick Blackburn, Scott Baker, Anthony Swarzak

Trade: Carl Pavano (NL)

Minor league signing/trade: Francisco Liriano

Free agent: None


Draft: Nick Blackburn, Cole De Vries, Liam Hendriks, Brian Duensing

Trade: Carl Pavano (NL)

Minor league signing/trade: Scott Diamond, Samuel Deduno, P.J. Walters, Francisco Liriano

Free agent: Jason Marquis (NL, made only 7 starts)


Draft: Kyle Gibson

Trade: Vance Worley (NL)

Minor league signing/trade: Scott Diamond, Samuel Deduno, Pedro Hernandez, Andrew Albers

Free agent: Kevin Correia (NL), Mike Pelfrey (NL)


Draft: Kyle Gibson

Trade: None

Minor league signing/trade: None

Free agent: Mike Pelfrey (NL, only 5 starts), Kevin Correia (NL), Ricky Nolasco (NL), Phil Hughes (AL)

Notice that only one of the free agent signings spent most of his career in the American League (Hughes) while everyone else was predominantly a National Leaguer. Pavano was solid for most of his time in Minnesota and Correia hasn't been a disaster so far, but all the others have struggled. Marquis was so bad that he only lasted a month and a half with the Twins, Worley didn't make it a full season, Pelfrey wasn't very good, and Nolasco was so bad that finding out he's been hurt the whole time is almost a relief in some sick, twisted manner of logic.

Now, it's easy to argue that the Twins should have just signed or traded for better pitchers and this problem would have been solved. However, that means you're completely ignoring how the Twins work as an organization. Remember that Ricky Nolasco's free agent contract is the biggest the Twins have ever handed out. Phil Hughes' comes in second. Neither of those contracts topped $50 million. This past offseason had 11 players receive more money than Nolasco, so arguing that the Twins should have gone out and acquired Zack Greinke is a fool's errand. It would be like telling me to go steal from someone outside my apartment. Sure, I could do it, but I have no history of doing so and I have no plans on starting now.

I think another thing to point out here is the Twins' poor showing with the draft over the past decade or so. Back in 2010, two-thirds of their starting pitchers were homegrown. Compare that to this season, where the Opening Day rotation was 80% free agents, not necessarily by choice but because of necessity. If it weren't for Nolasco, Hughes, and/or Pelfrey, the Twins would have been trotting out Vance Worley, Scott Diamond, and/or Samuel Deduno, three more pitchers that were not originally drafted by the Twins.

The Twins have stalled with starting pitchers coming up through the minor leagues in recent years, but there is some help on the way with Alex Meyer and Trevor May. If you look a few more years into the future, Jose Berrios appears to be joining them as well, and hopefully Kohl Stewart Alex Wimmers can pick up the pace a bit.

If the Twins want to get back on track with their starting pitching, I think the first step lies with Meyer and May. After that, the remainder of the rotation can be filled out with the free agent pitchers and minor league signings. Hopefully Nolasco's struggles this year were indeed from his elbow injury and not because he simply can't cut in the American League, and I'd certainly prefer if the Twins would start targeting some pitchers with American League experience instead of constantly going over to the other league. Granted, the AL pitchers are often more expensive and in higher demand, but I'd hope that the Twins finally learn that while you don't need to break the bank to put together a team, you do need to spend a little in order to improve the roster.