The Twins' search for an ace: Elite starting pitchers few and far between

The Twins hope to find a future ace with the No. 2 pick in the draft.

hide

Johan Santana most certainly was an ace for the Twins ... but that was five years ago.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

FORT MYERS, FLA. — Johan Santana won at least 15 games a year for the Twins from 2004 to '07, picking up two American League Cy Young Awards along the way. He was a workhorse, a stopper, a dominator, the embodiment of what an ace pitcher should be.

General Manager Terry Ryan was asked which Twins pitchers before Santana were considered true aces among their peers.

"[Frank] Viola, [Jack] Morris, then Santana," Ryan said.

That opinion means the Twins went from 1992 to 2003 without having a candidate for ace designation. And they still are trying to find an ace to replace Santana.

They have a chance to address that need with the No. 2 overall pick in the June 4 amateur draft, a pick they received for their 99-loss 2011 season.

But selecting high comes with no guarantee, because elite starting pitchers are so difficult to find.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have drafted eighth overall or better in nine of the past 11 years. They have taken a pitcher seven times with no luck, although they are hoping last year's No. 1 overall pick, Gerrit Cole, bucks that trend.

Let's be clear about semantics: Every team has a No. 1 starter. Not everyone has an ace. Ryan recently scanned a wall in his office that has every team's roster listed and examined the pitching staffs.

"You got 30 teams," he said. "You go up and down these rosters and find the ones that are legitimate aces. There's 15 maybe. Maybe. We're talking about a select group there."

The locks should include Justin Verlander of division rival Detroit, the Yankees' CC Sabathia, Philadelphia's Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, San Francisco's Tim Lincecum, Seattle's Felix Hernandez and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw -- all Cy Young winners. The Angels' Jered Weaver and Boston's Jon Lester might merit a place on this list, too. After that, it's mostly youngsters with ace stuff trying to master consistency -- pitchers such as Tampa Bay's David Price and Milwaukee's Yovani Gallardo, among others.

The significance of an ace evidences itself in numerous ways over baseball's marathon schedule. An ace stops losing streaks that might otherwise become lengthy. An ace wins big games during the regular season. And an ace gives a team a huge advantage in the postseason.

"To be a No. 1 guy, you have to build a résumé," Ryan said. "You have to be a stopper, Cy Young candidate, capable of winning 15-20 games year in and year out. You have to be reliable, about 70 percent of your starts should be quality starts. Get lefties and righties out. And be a leader.

"And there's just not a lot of guys to meet that criteria."

Close, but no ace

Brad Radke, who went 148-139 in 12 years with the Twins and won 20 games in 1997, was considered a good pitcher over this career, but he lacked overpowering stuff. Ryan said some argued Radke was more of a No. 3 starter than an ace.

Current Twins righthander Carl Pavano has pitched at least 221 innings the past two seasons. But he knows he doesn't fit the criteria to be considered an ace because he relies on defense and execution behind him to get batters out. Pavano, simply put, is not a strikeout pitcher, which nearly all true aces are.

Still, when it comes to separating the good pitchers from the great ones, Pavano believes there are swing moments in games that determine how a season goes from good to great. And how a pitcher can be an ace, if only for a season.

"It comes down to six to 10 pitches a game that cost you big innings," said the 36-year-old Pavano, 106-102 over a major league career that began in 1998. "Like the wrong time to walk someone or pitch around someone, or a couple inches here and there. And execution is a big factor. The guys who do it the most are considered the best."

To succeed in those situations long-term, Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said he believes that mental makeup sets the great pitchers apart. He spent years watching Santana thrive in those situations before he was traded to the Mets in February 2008.

"Pitching is about how you make adjustments to get deep into games," Anderson said. "You have to have the mentality. I guarantee you that if you talk to some starters they think if they have a quality start [pitch at least six innings, giving up three or fewer earned runs], it's pretty good. You have to have the mentality like, 'I want to go nine innings.' "

Tough to find

It's difficult to trade for an ace or sign one as a free agent -- either a proven ace or an unsigned prospect on the international market. The last time the Twins were even linked to one was Lee, who was traded by Seattle to Texas during the 2010 season. The Twins tried to work out a deal, but some of the players they were willing to talk about in a deal -- catcher Wilson Ramos, for one -- were either injured orstruggling.

"Every year I go out and see all the top guys in the draft, all the international guys," said Mike Radcliff, Twins senior vice president in charge of player personnel. "I'm aware of free agents and all the guys who are available to be acquired on the major league market. And there's not a No. 1 guy available every year.

"If you're not picking at the very top of the draft, or if you're not willing to spend a whole bunch of money in the international market, if you're not willing to spend $100 million like the big dogs get in the free-agent market, then you are not going to get one."

Just how much teams are willing to pay for a potential ace was evident this offseason when the Rangers committed $108 million for Japanese righthander Yu Darvish, a figure that includes a $52 million posting fee to Darvish's former team.

The Twins are looking at prospects at all positions, but they are very aware of the opportunity to select a front-line starter. Power pitchers normally don't last long in the draft, so this is their chance. They were on hand this year when California prep pitcher Lucas Giolito hit 100 miles per hour on the radar gun, and they were there the night he injured his elbow earlier this month and clouded his draft status.

Recently, they have been scouting University of San Francisco righthander Kyle Zimmer, who throws in the mid-90s and is moving up the charts.

There are excellent position players available such as Arizona State shortstop Deven Marrero and Georgia prep outfielder Byron Buxton, but the lure of landing a top pitching prospect and all that can mean might be too good to pass up.

"We're picking high, are you kidding me?" Radcliff said. "We're bearing down on all the top pitchers. Hopefully that's what we'll try to get."

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions
Final123456789RHE
Minnesota000000000040
Detroit «00100002X340
@Ballpark Replay
Preview | Matchup | Lineup | Log | Wrap | Box
W:D.Price(15-12) L:K.Gibson(13-12) S:J.Nathan (35)
HR: MIN- None DET- I.Kinsler (17)

ADVERTISEMENT

San Francisco - WP: M. Bumgarner 7 FINAL
Kansas City - LP: J. Shields 1
San Diego 10/23/14 7:25 PM
Denver
Detroit 10/26/14 8:30 AM
Atlanta
Buffalo 10/26/14 12:00 PM
NY Jets
St. Louis 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Kansas City
Houston 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Tennessee
Minnesota 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Seattle 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Carolina
Baltimore 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Cincinnati
Miami 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Jacksonville
Chicago 10/26/14 12:00 PM
New England
Philadelphia 10/26/14 3:05 PM
Arizona
Oakland 10/26/14 3:25 PM
Cleveland
Indianapolis 10/26/14 3:25 PM
Pittsburgh
Green Bay 10/26/14 7:30 PM
New Orleans
Washington 10/27/14 7:30 PM
Dallas
Houston 85 FINAL
Miami 90
Indiana 89 FINAL
Minnesota 107
Utah 105 FINAL
Oklahoma City 91
Portland 93 FINAL
Denver 75
Phoenix 114 FINAL
LA Lakers 108
LA Clippers 107 FINAL
Golden State 125
San Jose 3 FINAL
Boston 5
NY Rangers 4 FINAL(OT)
New Jersey 3
Toronto 5 FINAL
NY Islanders 2
Detroit 1 FINAL(OT)
Montreal 2
Arizona 3 FINAL(SO)
Nashville 4
Carolina 1 FINAL
Winnipeg 3
Philadelphia 0 FINAL
Chicago 4
Vancouver 3 FINAL
Dallas 6
Florida 4 FINAL(OT)
Colorado 3
Tampa Bay 2 FINAL(OT)
Calgary 1
Arkansas State 40 FINAL
Louisiana 55
Connecticut 10/23/14 6:00 PM
(18) East Carolina
Miami-Florida 10/23/14 7:00 PM
Virginia Tech
So Florida 10/24/14 6:00 PM
Cincinnati
Troy 10/24/14 6:30 PM
South Alabama
BYU 10/24/14 8:00 PM
Boise State
(6) Oregon 10/24/14 9:00 PM
California
North Texas 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Rice
UAB 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Arkansas
Rutgers 10/25/14 11:00 AM
(16) Nebraska
Maryland 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Wisconsin
Texas 10/25/14 11:00 AM
(11) Kansas State
Minnesota 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Illinois
Memphis 10/25/14 11:00 AM
SMU
North Carolina 10/25/14 11:30 AM
Virginia
San Jose St 10/25/14 12:00 PM
Navy
Northern Ill 10/25/14 12:00 PM
Eastern Mich
(25) UCLA 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Colorado
Akron 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Ball State
Massachusetts 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Toledo
Ohio U 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Western Mich
Ga Southern 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Georgia State
Kent State 10/25/14 1:30 PM
Miami-Ohio
Oregon State 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Stanford
Fla Atlantic 10/25/14 2:30 PM
(23) Marshall
Louisiana Tech 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Southern Miss
(1) Miss State 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Kentucky
Georgia Tech 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Pittsburgh
(22) West Virginia 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Oklahoma State
Texas Tech 10/25/14 2:30 PM
(10) TCU
Michigan 10/25/14 2:30 PM
(8) Michigan State
Boston College 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Wake Forest
Central Mich 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Buffalo
Vanderbilt 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Missouri
Old Dominion 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Western Ky
UNLV 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Utah State
Temple 10/25/14 4:00 PM
UCF
(15) Arizona 10/25/14 5:00 PM
Washington St
Texas-El Paso 10/25/14 6:00 PM
TX-San Antonio
Wyoming 10/25/14 6:00 PM
Colorado State
Syracuse 10/25/14 6:00 PM
(21) Clemson
Texas State 10/25/14 6:00 PM
ULM
(3) Ole Miss 10/25/14 6:15 PM
(24) LSU
(4) Alabama 10/25/14 6:30 PM
Tennessee
So Carolina 10/25/14 6:30 PM
(5) Auburn
(13) Ohio State 10/25/14 7:00 PM
Penn State
(20) USC 10/25/14 9:00 PM
(19) Utah
(14) Arizona State 10/25/14 9:45 PM
Washington
Nevada 10/25/14 10:59 PM
Hawaii
Montreal 10/24/14 5:30 PM
Ottawa
Saskatchewan 10/24/14 8:30 PM
Calgary
Hamilton 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Toronto
Brt Columbia 10/25/14 6:00 PM
Winnipeg
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Are you happy to see the Royals in the World Series?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close