Twins' biggest needs to address: pitching, pitching and pitching

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 31, 2012 - 11:41 AM

Minnesota has other weaknesses, but they pale in comparison to their primary one.

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Twins' pitching coach Rick Anderson (second from right).

Photo: John Smierciak, Associated Press

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After finishing with the American League's worst record two consecutive years, the Twins face an enormous challenge, trying to defy the odds and make the postseason again next year.

Last fall, they believed things would turn around if they could keep Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Denard Span healthy after losing all three players for large portions of the 2011 season. All three avoided major injuries in 2012, yet the improvement was marginal, from 63-99 to 66-96.

"It's going to take everything that we've got to turn this around quickly," General Manager Terry Ryan said. "We're going to have to hit better, field better, pitch better, close games better. You don't get in the spot we are by doing too many things right."

The primary need, of course, is starting pitching. As San Francisco gets ready for another World Series parade Wednesday, these are the biggest offseason questions facing the Twins:

1. Will they re-sign Scott Baker?

The only sure thing for next year's rotation is Scott Diamond, so re-signing Baker (above) is a priority, even though he missed last season after having Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery April 17.

The Twins declined Baker's $9.25 million option Monday, making him a free agent, but the righthander said the sides have made progress toward a new, incentive-laced deal.

Baker, 31, went 8-6 with a 2.86 ERA in his first 19 starts of 2011 before having arm trouble. If he rediscovers his old form, he'll be well worth the risk.

2. Is Kyle Gibson the real deal?

Gibson went 3-0 with a 0.69 ERA in his first three starts in the Arizona Fall League, rekindling hope that he can be a frontline pitcher in the majors.

A 2009 first-round draft pick, Gibson seemed poised to reach the majors in 2011, when he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Now, reports have his sinking fastball humming even faster than it did pre-surgery, at 93 miles per hour.

The Twins might limit Gibson to 140 innings next year, but even if he opens the season in their bullpen or in Class AAA, he could give the major league rotation a nice boost by May or June.

3. Will Ryan become trader Terry?

The two most logical trade chips for GM Terry Ryan are Morneau and Span. Chris Parmelee can take over for Morneau at first or move to right field if Ben Revere replaces Span in center.

Morneau, 31, will make $14 million next season in the final year of his six-year, $80 million deal. His concussion history and continued wrist problems are red flags for potential suitors, but the free-agent market is thin on first baseman, with Adam LaRoche considered the best option.

Span, 28, has two years and $11.25 million remaining on his deal, with an option for 2015. The Twins also could try to sell high with Josh Willingham, who had a career season at age 33, but Ryan has talked about how hard it would be to replace Willingham's powerful righthanded bat.

4. Is there free-agent pitching help?

Baker and Gibson can't be counted on as 200-inning workhorses next year, so unless the Twins can fill their other rotation vacancies through trades -- highly unlikely --they'll need to tap the free-agent market.

This is not one of Ryan's favorite pastimes. He hates to overpay, and every year there are stories of starting pitching contracts gone bad.

This year's free agent class includes one potential ace, in Zack Greinke, and a host of second-tier options including Dan Haren, Brandon McCarthy, Shawn Marcum, Anibal Sanchez, Ryan Dempster, Hiroki Kuroda, Edwin Jackson and old friend Kyle Lohse.

It'll be a seller's market, with the Twins just one of several teams desperate for starting pitching. The Royals and Indians have similar needs, for example, and that's just looking inside the AL Central.

Lohse is 34, but he might get another $40 million deal. At 28, Sanchez could cash in for even more than that, even with a 48-31 career record. The Twins want bargains, but if they want proven quality, they'll have to pay.

5. And after starting pitching?

Asked to name the second biggest priority after starting pitching, Ryan doesn't hesitate to say relief pitching.

That doesn't mean Ryan is content with his lineup's offense or defense, but it speaks to how badly the entire pitching staff needs upgrading.

The starters ranked last in the AL with a 5.40 ERA, and the relievers ranked ninth with a 3.77 ERA. Glen Perkins and Jared Burton formed a nice late-game duo, but Ryan is determined to add reinforcements.

"If you've got a deep bullpen, you might get away with not having to overexpose maybe some of the guys in the latter part of the rotation," he said.

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