Answers for Twins still elusive

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 19, 2012 - 11:48 PM

The Twins are putting out a call for quality arms as the trade deadline approaches, but the prospects look bleak.

Scouts for the Angels and Yankees were seen leaving Target Field on Wednesday, as soon as Francisco Liriano finished his six-inning, 10-strikeout outing against Baltimore.

A Twins fan could dream of those scouts scurrying away on cell phones, urging their general managers to close the deal, even if that meant parting with Garret Richards for the Angels, or Dellin Betances for the Yankees.

But that's probably far-fetched.

The Twins hope to get the best return possible in any trade for Liriano before the July 31 nonwaiver deadline, but don't expect them to land a bona fide ace to front their 2013 rotation.

The way teams value top pitching prospects these days, no team would be foolish enough to trade the next Justin Verlander or Clayton Kershaw for a pitcher who can become a free agent after 14 more starts. Those Doyle Alexander-for-John Smoltz references are 25 years old.

As desperate as the Twins are to find starting pitching for 2013, a Liriano or Denard Span trade might not even address that specific need. Speaking only generally Thursday, GM Terry Ryan said, "When you're out there looking around, I think it's important you're always looking for the high-ceiling guy, whether he's major league-ready or whether he's in A-ball."

To focus solely on the 2013 rotation "would be a terrible mistake," Ryan said.

Ryan said the best target might be a Class A pitcher, who's further from the majors.

"You can go get a marginal Triple-A guy who might be here next year," he said. "Are you going to be satisfied passing up a high-ceiling guy? I wouldn't be, but everybody has their own philosophy on that."

That's the right long-term thinking for the franchise, but it's not going to ease concerns that this year's starting pitching nightmare will stretch through next season.

Liriano and Carl Pavano are pending free agents, and Scott Baker will hit the market, too, unless the Twins pick up next year's $9.25 million option or renegotiate an incentive-laden deal.

So who the heck starts next year?

Right now, Scott Diamond looks like one answer. He's 8-3 with a 2.96 ERA. Scouts like his fastball command and his changeup, but they are quick to note that fellow lefthander Brian Duensing has better overall stuff. Duensing went 7-2 with a 3.04 ERA in 13 starts to finish the 2010 season, and now he's back in the bullpen again.

Besides Diamond, the Twins hope Kyle Gibson can make a big impact next season, but he will probably be on an innings limit, similar to Stephen Strasburg's, coming back from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery.

Cole De Vries, P.J. Walters and Sam Deduno have exceeded expectations, but none profiles much higher than a No. 5 starter on a good team.

"Getting a No. 1 guy -- there's only so many of those types of guys out there," Ryan said. "You keep chasing that free agent market, and you're probably in a dream world. There aren't any shortcuts to building a staff."

So while the front office contemplates trade offers, auditions are open. Nick Blackburn starts Friday at Kansas City after going 2-0 with a 0.60 ERA in two starts at Class AAA Rochester. He said he studied videotape from 2009 and made a mechanical adjustment that helped him find his old sinker.

After watching him post an 8.10 ERA in 13 starts, the Twins will believe it when they see it, knowing Blackburn is under contract for $5.5 million next year.

"We count on him," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He's supposed to be in [the rotation]. That's what we signed him for. We need him desperately. We need Liam Hendriks, really, to get going because he's a guy we're supposed to count on, too."

Last year's Minor League Pitcher of the Year for the Twins, Hendriks is 7-0 with a 1.74 ERA for Rochester this year. Problem is, he is 0-5 with a 7.04 ERA for the Twins. He will get another chance soon, possibly next week if Deduno has another rough start Sunday.

"You have to get something solidified in the rotation to give yourself a chance," Gardenhire said.

Joe Christensen • jchristensen@startribune.com

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