FORT MYERS, FLA. - Twins righthander Carlos Silva dressed up as club mascot T.C. Bear last week and drew laughs and applause as he pulled off skit after skit with teammates before a game. It's one of many things Silva has done in recent years to keep a generally loose team loose.
"We like Carlos," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We like him a lot."
Liking someone, however, is not enough of a reason to give him a spot in a rotation when he isn't pitching well.
Silva has a 7.62 ERA in four spring outings. He's not throwing his sinking fastball well. His other pitches need work. And after losing his spot in the rotation briefly last season (and finishing 11-15 with a 5.94 ERA), Silva could be in line for similar treatment if he doesn't pull things together. And this time, a removal could last much longer than three weeks, which was how long he was out of the rotation last year.
On Sunday, Gardenhire strongly hinted that Silva is not on firm ground.
"We want him to be in our rotation desperately," Gardenhire said. "We think we need him. Nothing is a lock. He knows that. He has to go out and pitch."
It seems unlikely any pitcher has attracted the attention Silva has in workouts. On March 3, when pitching coach Rick Anderson was on a road trip, minor league pitching coordinator Rick Knapp, Class AAA Rochester pitching coach Stu Cliburn and Johan Santana offered encouragement while Silva threw in the bullpen. Santana has watched several of Silva's sessions during camp.
Instead of being on the bench Sunday for a game against Pittsburgh, Gardenhire and Anderson were on a back field watching Silva face minor leaguers while trying to fine-tune his pitches.
"His ball was moving and sinking," Gardenhire said. "He changed his arm angle a little bit and really had the ball diving. Had a great changeup. His slider still is not exactly what he wants to see, but I thought his ball was sinking really good. He got a ton of ground balls."
Silva still gave up three runs in four innings against Class AA New Britain, including an opposite-field homer.
"Seems like every mistake he makes -- even [Sunday when] he got one up -- they hit it," Gardenhire said. "It's a matter of him keeping that arm slot and making the ball move."
When asked what Silva's second-best pitch is, Gardenhire said the changeup -- not the slider, not the slider-curve hybrid Silva had when he came to the Twins as part of the Eric Milton trade in 2003. Instead, it is the changeup -- a pitch he started throwing in September of last season.
Does that make Silva a two-pitch pitcher, a one-pitch pitcher (considering he's still trying to harness his sinker) or a 1½-pitch pitcher?
It's obvious the Twins, who picked up Silva's $4.35 million option during the offseason, are pulling for him. And indications are that Silva will open the season in the rotation along with Santana, Ramon Ortiz, Sidney Ponson and Boof Bonser.
But Silva has little room for error because several prospects have auditioned impressively this spring. If this was a movie, it could be called "Rotation Crashers."
Bonser, a righthander, wasn't considered a lock coming into camp but has made a statement with his 2.25 ERA. He's likely the fifth starter.
Lefthander Glen Perkins has a new sinker and a 2.00 ERA. If he is not in the rotation now, he is likely first in line if something happens.
Don't misread that as an indictment of righthander Matt Garza (1.50 ERA in camp). The Twins rave about his talent, though some feel he needs polish. But he's close.
Righthander Kevin Slowey (3.38 ERA in camp) has joined the "nearly ready" wave because of his excellent control and willingness to mix four pitches.
Righthander Scott Baker (9.64 ERA in five outings) is out of the picture and needs a big year in the minors.
Rotation spots could change over the final 12 games of spring training, based on who sails and who fails as the games turn more serious. But it's clear that Silva not only has to finish camp strong, he also has to start the season strong or he could get run over by the future -- well-liked or not.
La Velle E. Neal III firstname.lastname@example.org