March 30, 2006

Meet the Pitching Staff

With Dennys Reyes being reassigned to minor-league camp yesterday, the Twins have essentially announced the pitching staff they will head north with (barring a last-minute trade). Here are the 11 men who will try to keep runs off the board to begin the season:

#1 Starter     Johan Santana    
#2 Starter Brad Radke
#3 Starter Carlos Silva
#4 Starter Kyle Lohse
#5 Starter Scott Baker

Closer Joe Nathan
#1 Set Up Juan Rincon
#2 Set Up Jesse Crain
Middle Man Matt Guerrier
Middle Man Willie Eyre
Long Man Francisco Liriano

I've done some hypothesizing when it comes to each pitcher's specific role on the staff, obviously. I don't know for certain that Kyle Lohse will start fourth in the rotation and Scott Baker will start fifth, for example. I also don't know for certain that Ron Gardenhire will resist the urge to stall Francisco Liriano's development by using him as a LOOGY. However, the above layout seems like the most likely scenario.

As I've written here numerous times over the long offseason, I would have done everything in my power to trade Lohse this winter, either for a comparable hitter or some prospects. I won't go over my reasons for feeling that way again now, but because of that the above group is not quite the same 11 pitchers I would have chosen to begin the season.

However, if you simply handed me a list of pitchers who the Twins currently employ and asked me to choose an 11-man staff, that's the exact group I would take. Considering how often I disagree with Terry Ryan and Gardenhire when it comes to roster construction, that's pretty remarkable. It's also a really good pitching staff.

In contrast to years past, when guys like Joe Mays, Seth Greisinger, and Terry Mulholland were around, I don't see a single legitimate weak spot on the staff. Lohse may not be anything great as a starter, Matt Guerrier is unproven in a middle-relief spot, and Willie Eyre is far from a sure thing, but each of those 11 pitchers is perfectly capable of being an above-average performer in the role they are asked to fill. That's probably rarer than you think.

No team makes it through an entire season with just 11 pitchers, so guys like Reyes will come into play down the road. However, by pushing him aside initially the Twins have at least recognized that taking someone like Eyre because you think he will be an effective pitcher is more important than taking someone like Reyes because you know he throws with his left hand. I didn't trust the Twins to come to that conclusion, so I'm pleasantly surprised that they did.

Behind Johan Santana, the Twins' rotation is more about competence than dominance. Neither Brad Radke or Carlos Silva is quite what you're looking for in a #2 starter, but the Twins more than make up for that by not having a Mays-like disaster anywhere in the rotation (with a 5.65 ERA in 156 innings, he allowed 16.5 percent of the team's runs while pitching just 10.7 percent of the team's innings). Each of the five starters give the team a good chance to win every time they take the mound, which not many teams can honestly say.

When someone inevitably misses some starts, the team can call on Liriano to fill in and the rotation may actually improve because of the switch. And if a second replacement starter is needed -- which is fairly likely, at some point -- capable short-term fill-ins Boof Bonser, Ryan Glynn, and Glen Perkins are just a phone call away.

With that said, the beautiful thing about the pitching staff is that the bullpen is probably the strength. Joe Nathan is the relief corps equivalent to Santana, pitching brilliantly in two seasons with the Twins and establishing himself as one of baseball's elite closers. In Juan Rincon the Twins have an elite setup man as well, although Rincon's elbow problems are a huge question mark heading into the season. If healthy there isn't a better setup-closer combination in baseball.

If you look at most pitching staffs, the middle relievers are extremely iffy. With the Twins the middle innings will be given to Jesse Crain, Guerrier, and Eyre. I have major doubts about Crain's ability to fulfill his potential as a dominant late-inning reliever now that he's seemingly forgotten how to strike people out, but as a third reliever he's solid. Guerrier was excellent in a long-relief role last season and should be fine in shorter stints, while Eyre's minor-league track record since converting to the bullpen full-time is outstanding.

When it comes to organizational depth, the Twins are even deeper in capable relievers than they are in starters. If someone goes down or Liriano is moved into the rotation, guys like Reyes, Pat Neshek, Jason Miller, Beau Kemp, and Pete Munro are each good enough to have major-league jobs with other teams. Plus, Bonser, Glynn, and Perkins could fill in as well. And if J.D. Durbin ever gets things straightened out, he's another relief option.

This is a very good, deep staff. They have elite pitchers in Santana, Nathan, and Rincon, and have the major-league and minor-league depth in place to withstand injuries to anyone but Santana and Nathan. Liriano gives the team a chance for second-half improvements without having to add a veteran pitcher through midseason trade, and that luxury also opens the door for trading Lohse to improve the offense at some point.

If you're a Twins fan, the 11 pitchers heading north with the team are the reason to be optimistic for 2006. Below is a rough sketch of what the Twins' pitching numbers might look like in 2006. The projections here are fairly conservative and in some cases might even be pessimistic, but if you're trying to be objective that's a whole lot better than counting on Lohse to come up with 200 innings of 3.50 ERA pitching. Also, keep in mind that ERA does not account for all the runs a team allows.

                       IP      ERA
Johan Santana 225 2.75
Carlos Silva 200 3.85
Brad Radke 200 4.10
Scott Baker 185 4.25
Kyle Lohse 125 4.50
Francisco Liriano 100 3.75
Juan Rincon 75 2.75
Jesse Crain 75 3.50
Joe Nathan 70 2.75
Matt Guerrier 70 3.75
Willie Eyre 65 4.00
Dennys Reyes 25 4.50
Boof Bonser 25 4.50
Assorted Fill-Ins 25 5.00

TOTAL 1,465 3.73

The Twins ranked fifth in the league by allowing 662 runs in 2005, and did so with a 3.71 team ERA in 1,664 innings. In other words, if the pitching staff comes up with the numbers I've penciled them in for above, they'll be exactly as good as last season (assuming the defensive support is at least as good). As you can see, there is plenty of room for various pitchers (Crain, Silva, Baker) to out-perform those projected ERAs and the Twins' defense might be improved, which is why I think a 650-run season is well within reach.

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