SP: The Four Horseman and One Stud

LirianoReview.jpgLast offseason, the Twins lost arguably the top three starters from their pitching rotation in Johan Santana, Matt Garza, and Carlos Silva, as the money just wasn’t there to sign them to long-term contracts.  So, heading into the 2008 season, the starting rotation was the biggest question mark of the team.

Remarkably, though, by the end of the season, the Twins had again dug deep within their organization and (big props to pitching coach Rick Anderson) built a solid starting rotation.  Here is how the starters performed over the course of the season:

Livan “Fat Man” Hernandez (10-8, 139.7 IP, 5.48 ERA): The Twins signed the Fat Man before the start of the season in order to give their starting rotation some veteran experience, but he was a colossal failure.  He benefited from some extremely good luck (to get those 10 wins), with his only talent being the ability to throw a complete game nearly every start (of course, he would surely give up five runs).  Hernandez was jettisoned at the end of July.

Francisco Liriano (6-4, 76, 3.91): In 2006, the Cisco Kid wowed Twins fans with his biting slider and extremely live fastball before rupturing his arm and needing Tommy John surgery to tidy it up.  After taking 2007 off, then, Twins fans had high hopes for Cisco in ’08.  At first, things took a terrible twist, as Liriano (in his first few starts with the big club since ’06) could not throw strikes and got hammered even by poor teams like Kansas City.  After just three starts and an 11.32 ERA in April, Liriano was sent back to the minors to work out the kinks.  He returned in August and looked much more like the Liriano of old, striking out more batters with higher velocity.  He struggled a bit at the end of the season, but clearly has the potential to be the staff ace in ’09.

Scott Baker (11-4, 172.3, 3.45): With Santana a Met, the Twins were counting on Baker to be the rock of their rotation in a year where Liriano would still be gaining his footing.  The success of Baker, though, depends on how you look at it: Usually, Baker did live up to the moniker of staff ace, mowing down batters in a Liriano-like fashion when he was on.  However, Baker also struggled mightily with pitch count, often leaving games after just five innings and putting more strain on an already-brittle bullpen (more in further posts)…not what you want out of your ace.

Kevin Slowey (12-11, 160.3, 3.99): The Twins were looking for Slowey to take the next step in his development as a major league pitcher, and by and large he did just that.  Injuries prevented him from achieving the 200 inning plateau, and he (like Baker) also struggled with pitch counts and leaving games early.  When he’s on his game, it’s eerily similar to watching the departed Brad Radke ply his trade.

Nick Blackburn (11-11, 193.3, 4.05): Judging on past experience, Blackie turned in the most remarkable season of all Twins starting pitchers in 2008.  A complete unknown coming into the season, Blackburn nearly reached 200 innings and spun a legendary game in the one-game playoff against the White Sox (although sadly he was not rewarded for his effort).  He’s a sinkerball pitcher, so either he was getting his ground balls, or the balls were flying out of the park.

Glen Perkins (12-4, 151, 4.41): After missing nearly an entire season due to injuries, Perkins (a former Golden Gopher) latched on to the fifth starter position and didn’t let go for nearly the entire season.  He was arguably the Twins’ most consistent pitcher in the middle months of the season, but seemed to tire (or just stink) down the stretch, raising some concerns about his strength.

So, the 2008 Twins were able to put together a remarkable young rotation (no one older than 26) that pitched them to within one Jim Thome home run of the playoffs.  Of course, with that youth brings question marks for ’09: Can Perkins hold up over a whole season?  Can Baker and Slowey manage their pitch counts better?  Can Blackburn get the sinker working more times than not?  Can Liriano get back to version.2006?

Looking ahead to 2009, Perkins’ spot in the rotation may be in jeopardy due to the emergence of young starter Anthony Swarzak (5-0 in Triple-A).  Other than that, the starting rotation looks to be, at the very least, competent.

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