Monday, April 26, 2010

What's Wrong with Nick Blackburn?



When the Twins agreed to a four-year, $14MM contract with a team option that could make it a five-year, $22MM contract, most fans and sportswriters were on board with the move. After all, cost certainty is a big plus for a team with a budget (AKA anyone besides the Yankees) and Blackburn had been remarkably consistent through two full seasons. I'm not going to debate whether the extension was a good idea or a bad idea, because Aaron Gleeman has done that a whole lot better than I ever could.

However, since signing the extension, Blackburn has a 6.85 ERA, including three straight starts in which he's allowed five runs. The Twins have said Blackburn is dealing with a sore arm, and even pushed his most recent start back a day to give him more rest. He's looked terrible over his last two starts, both against Kansas City, and if he struggles in his next start I think it's safe to say the Twins will be giving Blackburn some extended rest via the disabled list.

Of course, worrying about a pitcher's first month of the season can prove to be silly, and it's certainly possible that Blackburn figures things out and returns to his inning-eating, efficient ways. However, with the Twins looking simply fantastic over the first month of the season, there's simply not a lot to worry about so Blackburn's struggles top the list.

While Blackburn has been consistent with his 4ish ERA and .500 record, his minor league track record seemed to suggest more of a 4.60 ERA than a 4.00, so the worries this year seem to be from the doubts people had in his last two seasons. The Twins clearly didn't share in those doubts, as they handed Blackburn security for the rest of his life. Two full seasons should be enough of a sample size to feel confident in a player's expected performance, so I certainly don't fault Bill Smith and Co. for locking up Blackburn's salaries for the next four and possibly five seasons.

For example, Denard Span's minor league track record was even worse than Blackburn's. It was ultimately so bad that the Twins made sure to acquire a young potential center fielder of the future in any Johan Santana trade, and as we all know that landed them Carlos Gomez. Much like Blackburn, the Twins decided after two full years in the big leagues Span had shown them enough to lock him up, and also to trade Gomez across the border for J.J. Hardy. Nobody criticized the Twins for that extension, and nobody should have because Span has been an elite lead off hitter for those two seasons.

So what is going on with Blackburn? Ultimately, I think he's battling both a sore arm and a bit of bad luck. While the Royals offense doesn't bring back memories of the '27 Yankees by any means, they have some solid offensive players and Jose Guillen's revival has been a major reason for that. Being forced to start consecutive games against the same lineup when you don't have elite stuff oftentimes leads to poor results, and Blackburn is no exception.

Blackburn's next start is scheduled for April 30 on the road in Cleveland, and that should be a true sign of where Blackburn is exactly. If he continues to struggle against a Cleveland lineup that has struggled quite a bit this season, it might be time to actually start worrying. Until then, I'm going to continue to give Blackburn and the front office the benefit of the doubt. After all, the team does have the second best record in baseball at 13-6 and still is yet to lose a series. No reason to worry, yet.