The Twins, on their way back to respectability, need to deal with their starting rotation before they deal with any other part of the team. Can they turn things around before next February?
As bad as the Twins were in 2012, you really couldn’t blame any of it on the team’s offense. Their 4.33 runs per game was reasonably close to the league average of 4.45 despite the restrictions of Target Field; they were seventh in the AL in OPS+ at 99, ninth in wRC+ at 97. Going into 2013, if they kept the same lineup in place, you might expect them to be roughly average again; maybe Josh Willingham takes a step back, but healthier and better years from Justin Morneau and Denard Span and improvement from Ben Revere could pick up the slack and then some.
Hypothesis: If the Twins are roughly average at scoring runs, then if they can just get to average in preventing runs, that should be about a .500 team, and a .500 team, especially in the Central, is just one or two lucky breaks away from being a contender.
Unfortunately, getting to average in run prevention is going to be a struggle. As you know, the team’s run prevention was very far from average. They allowed 5.14 runs per game, next to last in the league, and while the defense did them no favors, the pitchers had a league-worst 4.66 FIP and 4.46 xFIP to go with their near-league-worst 4.77 ERA.
Can that be fixed in a single off-season? I doubt it, but they seem set to try -- a rumor last week had the Twins pursuing three starters, though Terry Ryan has indicated that he thinks (perplexingly, to me) the upcoming free agent market is very thin on pitchers and had previously said that he doesn’t expect to do much in free agency. In 2012, the Twins had essentially three big-league pitchers -- Scott Diamond, Glen Perkins and Jared Burton -- and even if they bring in three more, they’re unlikely to acquire the six or seven required to turn this ship around.
Nevertheless, let’s look at what the Twins might look like if they did do it. We’ll look only at the rotation; the bullpen was terrible in front of Burton and Perkins, but there are seeds of something better here. For purposes of our hypothetical off-season, we’ll assume that Casey Fien keeps striking out one an inning, Anthony Slama comes up and puts up numbers commensurate with what he’s done in the minors, and Ryan finds two or three more cheap, live arms who can get the job done. Bullpens are highly variable, so it’s not impossible that the Twins could luck into a good one in this manner.
Of course, that doesn’t do anything to help the rotation, which remains a mess. Of the 12 pitchers who got at least one start for the Twins in 2012, only Diamond put up an ERA or FIP that was better than league average. I’ve written elsewhere that Diamond would be a number-four pitcher in a good team’s rotation, but this is the AL Central, and we’re not going for good when just okay could be enough. We’ll pencil Diamond in to the number three slot and build around him.
By my reckoning, the Twins have about $25.5 million coming off the books from things like the expiring contracts of Scott Baker and Carl Pavano, the departure of Tsuyoshi Nishioka, and declining the option on Matt Capps. It’s not nearly this simple, but for argument’s sake let’s say they’re willing to add $25 million in 2013 money to this rotation. Here’s the rotation I’d look to build:
1. Anibal Sanchez. Zack Greinke, much as I’d love it, is not going to be a Twin next year, but Sanchez is probably the next best thing on this free agent market. He’s had three very good years in a row, with an above-average strikeout rate and a walk rate per nine innings that’s dropped from 4.81 to 3.23 to 2.93 to 2.21. He’s not a big name, and his won-lost records have been unimpressive while his ERA has steadily climbed over those years, so I’m counting on him being available for a reasonable price. He’ll be just 29, and will be looking for a long-term deal. I’ll take a stab at it: five years, $55 million.
2. Scott Baker. Prior to his elbow injury and subsequent Tommy John surgery, Baker had quietly developed into a solid number-two pitcher, with a strikeout rate that had jumped from around average to over eight per nine innings. We’re going to need some bargains here, so we’ll count on him bouncing back. The Twins declined Baker's $9.25 million option, but could still sign him to a one year, incentive-laden deal that tops out at $8 million, and let him try to rebuild his value. Perhaps the Twins could put in a 2014 option at $12 million or so that automatically vests if he proves healthy and effective.
3. Scott Diamond.
4. Francisco Liriano. That’s right: bring Frankie back. The Twins won’t have much money left after those first two signings (and even less if you’re dreaming of bigger game like Jake Peavy, Dan Haren, etc.), so a risk will have to be taken here. Liriano still has outstanding, Cy Young stuff. The underlying numbers suggest that he’s been unlucky, too, with a 2012 4.34 FIP that wasn’t terribly worse than average, and a 4.14 xFIP that was downright good. Then again, Liriano has had a considerably higher ERA than FIP each of the last four years, so maybe it’s not all luck. Either way, it’s all about harnessing his control; the difference between 2010’s superstar Liriano and 2012’s incredibly frustrating version was a walk rate that jumped by over 80 percent (2.72 to 5.00). It’s possible that some team will fall in love with his stuff and sign him for way too much, but for Twins purposes I’m angling for a one-year, $5 million deal with heavy incentives (either extra salary or another, much more lucrative year) that kick in if he goes 150 innings with some drastically lower walk rate.
5. Kyle Gibson. You may have noticed we’re out of money. Gibson has been electric since making his return from Tommy John surgery, striking out ten against one walk in 6.2 Triple-A innings before completely dominating the Arizona Fall League (13 IP, 19 K, 2 BB, 1.69 ERA). I doubt the Twins will want to throw him to the wolves this quickly, and maybe Nick Blackburn has a last hurrah in April, but hell, if you’re going for it and you’re not going to sign four new pitchers, is there a better option than Gibson right now?
So there you have it: in this scenario, the Twins spend real money and sign real pitchers, yet would still be looking at relying on two guys freshly back from Tommy John surgery plus welcoming back perhaps the most frustrating pitcher in Twins history. It could all work out -- and maybe others could draw up a still-realistic scenario that’s somewhat more likely to work out than mine and even gets the Twins some of the desperately-needed strikeouts they’ve been missing-- but no matter what, that’s a lot of risk to take on for a likely reward that tops out at...what, 85 wins?
I guess this is my really long-winded way of saying that I’m not a fan of Ryan’s plan to add three starting pitchers. This isn’t a good team, and short of landing Greinke/Sanchez/Haren, no three pitchers are going to make it a good team (and you’d still need a bullpen). I don’t want to sit through another Twins season like the last one any more than you do, but I don’t see a reasonable way around it. Rip the whole thing down, trade everything that’s worth more now than it will be two years from now, and save that money for a couple years down the road, when it might really do something. The 2013 rotation will be awful, but that’s probably exactly as it should be.