Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Baker Wins Final Rotation Spot



As expected, the Twins have decided on Scott Baker as the #5 starter, which means Kevin Slowey will start the season in the bullpen, if he isn't traded. Picking Baker over Slowey is the right decision, as Baker is actually one of the team's better starting pitchers, but having the pair battle for the final rotation spot is not only misguided but it's downright stupid.

Through three and a half seasons in Minnesota, Slowey has posted a 39-21 record with a 4.41 ERA, to go along with a remarkable 4.5/1 K:BB ratio. Slowey doesn't possess the stuff to consistently be an elite starter and for that reason he will never be a top of the rotation starter, but his impeccable control makes him a solid mid-rotation type starter.

I'm not nearly as high on Brian Duensing as some Twins fans. I will be shocked if Duensing posts an ERA under 4 this season, and I think it's much more likely that he's terrible than elite. I at least understand why, though, he was given a rotation spot. He was great last season when the team finally gave him a chance to start, so naturally the team believes he deserves a shot to prove it's for real. And considering the team seems to hate advanced statistics, chances are the team actually thinks Duensing is for real.

The battle, in my opinion, should have been between Slowey and Blackburn, rather than Slowey and Baker. Liriano, Pavano and Baker are clearly the team's three best starters, and as mentioned above Duensing is going to get an extended look to try to do what he did last season. However, Ron Gardenhire made it clear early on in the spring that Nick Blackburn had a rotation spot. I understand the team gave Blackburn an extension and they want to justify the money paid to him over the next two seasons, but the fact is Kevin Slowey has been considerably more effective than Blackburn.

Blackburn has thrown 100 more innings than Slowey over the last four seasons, has posted a 4.50 ERA to go along with a 32-36 record. Win-loss records are meaningless to me, so I'm not saying Slowey is a better choice because he's managed to post a better record despite a very similar ERA. While every advanced statistic would suggest that Slowey is much more likely to be successful this season than Blackburn, I realize using those stats in this situation is a lost cause because clearly the Twins didn't use them to make their decision.

However, even if the team was just using the 'traditional' stats like ERA, Slowey was much better last season. Blackburn went 10-12 with a 5.42 ERA while Slowey went 13-6 with a 4.45 ERA. But Blackburn did post a 3.57 ERA in 6 September starts. Slowey's was 5.19.

The team seems to believe because Blackburn was more effective at the end of last season he's going to continue that success into the 2011 season. Unfortunately, it's been proven time and again that the way a player ends one season very rarely has any effect on the way he starts the next season. Blackburn is an extreme ground ball pitcher, which is why the losses of JJ Hardy, Orlando Hudson and even Nick Punto are likely going to hurt both Blackburn and Pavano. Alexi Casilla is almost certainly going to be below average defensively at short, and despite Danny Valencia's strong defense last season he still needs to prove that a strong second half last season wasn't a fluke. I have no idea how good Tsuyoshi Nishioka will be defensively at second, but early reports seem to suggest he has great range but a well-below average arm. We'll see.

Of course, Kevin Slowey is an extreme fly ball pitcher, but because the Twins corner outfielders are so terrible defensively, I'm not sure what kind of pitcher would be better off. I think Blackburn will struggle much like he did last season, and while the team could trade Kevin Slowey and still replace Blackburn with Kyle Gibson at mid-season if needed, I don't think that's the right decision.

After an off-season of poor decisions, picking Blackburn over Slowey without even a battle between the two shouldn't be surprising, and it's not. But it is frustrating, and if the team is unable to win a third straight division title, it will be because of the series of poor moves the team made between getting swept out of the playoffs by the Yankees and opening day 2011. I really hope I'm wrong, but 2011 doesn't look like it's going to be the Twins year. The worst year in my lifetime for Minnesota sports fans continues.