Can Twins starting rotation be fixed?

The Twins can't afford to ignore any avenues in a quest for reliable starters for a deficient rotation.

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The Twins need more dependable starters such as Scott Diamond, a May call-up who has 12 victories and 200-plus innings pitched.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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A team's chance to win is always closely tied to that day's starting pitcher. And, on most days this season, the Twins have been overmatched.

Their starting pitchers entered the final weekend of the season ranked 29th in baseball in ERA, innings pitched, opponents' batting average and opponents on-base-plus-slugging percentage. And let's throw in another stat. Opponents have had an 80 percent success rate in stolen bases against Twins pitchers.

Opponents have scored 124 runs against the Twins in the first inning, the most of any inning. They have scored 109 in the second inning -- the second-most of any inning. The Twins have been blown out of games early, which renders their running game useless and allows opposing pitchers to get into a groove.

"It's just so much more fun to see a starting pitcher go into the sixth inning," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said.

Only four Twins teams (1994-96 and 2000) have had a starters' ERA worse than the Twins' current ERA of 5.46 .

So everyone knows what the No. 1 offseason priority is: Fixing a starting rotation that was among the worst in the majors and one of the poorer ones in Twins history.

Twins General Manager Terry Ryan was asked how the Twins can remodel their rotation in a day and age in which teams hold on to good pitching.

"The old fashioned way, we will end up having to earn it," Ryan said. "We'll have to go find it, we have to develop it, trade for it, we got to sign it, we got to look at the international market. There are no shortcuts in finding starting pitching. It is not going to be easy."

Who can they get?

It's unrealistic to expect the Twins to turn up a David Price or Roy Halladay during the offseason. Ace pitchers rarely hit the trade market.

What's more realistic is to find a couple of pitchers who can give them 180-200 innings. If they can throw that many innings, they are doing something right.

Since 2009, Carl Pavano is the only starter to give the Twins 200 innings. Pavano was expected to be the horse of the staff again this season, but his shoulder problems ruined that.

"Sure, you would love a horse to give you eight or nine innings every night," Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said, "but if you get a starter just to keep you in the game we'll be that much better. A guy you can pencil in every fifth day for seven innings."

When the Twins were competitive in the AL Central from 2002-10, their rotation included those kinds of pitchers. And they came from various backgrounds. Brad Radke was drafted and developed. Eric Milton, Joe Mays, Francisco Liriano and Rick Reed arrived in trades. Johan Santana was a Rule V draft pick. In 2010, the last year the Twins won the division, Pavano led a homegrown staff.

"Those are the types of guys you are looking for during the course of the regular season," Ryan said. "All that does is make the bullpen better, makes your defense better and wins games for you because you know what you've got."

The Twins appear to have some resources to deal for such a pitcher. They have two center fielders on the major league roster in Denard Span and Ben Revere, and Span has been rumored in trade talks for pitching in recent years. The Twins could package Span with a prospect in order to land a quality pitcher or nearly-ready prospect.

Ryan is willing to sign free agents but said last month that the offseason market will be thin and he doesn't like to commit to the amount of years it would take to sign top pitching.

That would appear to take him out of the running for Zack Greinke and perhaps Edwin Jackson. Shawn Marcum and Anibal Sanchez could appeal to the Twins.

Keep in mind what the cost of average pitching is on the free-agent market. Pavano is making $8.5 million this season. Someone like Jeremy Guthrie -- a career 54-77 pitcher -- could get that much, or more, as a free agent this offseason.

The best avenue for the Twins to improve their rotation look to be through a trade.

"If we had a couple guys who give you a chance we could win a lot of games," Anderson said. "We won those years [early-to-mid 2000s] with [solid starters] and a heck of a bullpen, and we've got the makings of a good bullpen now."

The Twins have aimed low with free-agent starters, with poor results. Jason Marquis, Livan Hernandez, Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson have been signed in recent years. The last free-agent starter to contribute the entire season was Kenny Rogers in 2003. They need to aim higher if they want to fix this problem.

In house help?

As the Twins nose-dived in the Central this season, they used 12 different starters. Some showed flashes of talent. But besides lefthander Scott Diamond -- a Rule V pick, by the way -- no one has emerged.

Righthanders Cole De Vries, Samuel Deduno, Liam Hendriks or others could develop into reliable starters, but the Twins know they can't go into 2013 with a rotation full of projects. They need innings.

Ryan indicated last month that he's open to re-signing Pavano, who will likely test the free-agent market. Scott Baker, who is out for the year because of Tommy John surgery in April, has a $9.25 million contract option that probably won't be picked up. But the Twins likely will try to sign him to something more reasonable for someone coming off surgery. Baker, 32, is in his prime and was 8-6 with a 3.14 ERA in 2011 when he began having elbow problems.

"I really thought the last couple of years he was coming into his own to be a quality major league pitcher," Anderson said. "He was another one going good before the elbow started bothering him."

The Twins will give righthander Nick Blackburn a chance to make the 2013 rotation. Blackburn has battled injuries the past couple of years and was 3-4 with a 7.39 ERA when he was sent down to Rochester. He's due to make $5.5 million next season. The Twins won't be able to trade him and won't eat the contract, so he will come to camp looking to have a bounceback season.

Prospect Kyle Gibson, who has recovered from Tommy John surgery and will pitch in the Arizona Fall League, could enter the picture. The former first-round pick will be looked at in spring training but might open the year at Rochester.

"I'm excited to see him," Anderson said.

It doesn't matter to the Twins this offseason if a starter comes out of the trainer's room, off another roster, from the free-agent market, in the lottery or from under a rock. They will examine every avenue available to bolster the rotation.

"That's my job," Ryan said, "and I've got to go find it."

  • Sunday: Joe Mauer • Today: The starting rotation, can it be fixed? • Tuesday: Analysis of 2012 farm system • Wednesday: Look ahead to 2013 payroll

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