With their victory last night, the Twins moved four games ahead of the White Sox in the AL Central. Given that they have their two best starters taking the mound in the final two games of the series, the Twins stand a good chance of holding a four- or six-game lead by the time the Sox leave town. With only 41 games remaining on the schedule (and with nearly a quarter of Chicago's remaining games coming against the Yankees and Red Sox), the Twins would have to be feeling pretty good about their chances.
Sure, the postseason is still a long ways away and we're getting ahead of ourselves by presuming that the Twins will be there. But, considering the resurgence of the bottom half the rotation, it is interesting to start thinking about which pitchers might get a chance to start in October.
While Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano are clearly in line to be your starters in the first two games of a postseason series (provided things don't come down to the wire in the AL Central again, deriving Ron Gardenhire of the ability to properly set up his rotation), it's not clear who might get the ball in Game 3 and a potential Game 4.
Traditionally, teams will go to a three- or four-man rotation in the playoffs. It's tough to predict which of those routes Gardenhire would choose, since he has done both in the past, but I suspect that if things are going as well as they are right now he'll use four starters. So today's question is this: If the ALDS were to start today, which two starters among the Twins' bottom three would you call upon to start in Games 3 and 4?
Early this summer, when Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn were all sputtering along, the question would have presented a "pick your poison" type of dilemma. However, now that Slowey and Baker have stepped their games up (last night's poor showing by Baker notwithstanding) while Brian Duensing has done an outstanding job replacing Blackburn, it's somewhat difficult to choose a guy to exclude.
I'll present a few strengths and weaknesses for each option and let you reach your own conclusions.
Season Stats: 134.1 IP, 11-5, 4.22 ERA, 98/25 K/BB, 1.27 WHIP
Why He Should Start: Slowey is currently the hottest pitcher in the Twins' rotation. He notably hurled seven no-hit innings against the Athletics on Sunday, and is 3-0 with a 2.10 ERA and only one homer allowed over his past five starts. After displaying uncharacteristically shaky command early in the season, Slowey had issued one or zero walks in each of his past 16 starts prior to Sunday.
Why He Shouldn't Start: Slowey's recent success is a little misleading since it has mostly come against lousy offenses. His four quality starts during the aforementioned five-game span have come against Oakland, Seattle, Baltimore and Cleveland, which happen to be the four lowest scoring offenses in the American League. One has to wonder how his stuff would play against a playoff-caliber lineup in October, especially considering that he has no real big-game experience. He also has rarely pitched past the sixth inning this season and has recently battled some elbow soreness.
Season Stats: 144.2 IP, 10-9, 4.85 ERA, 121/31 K/BB, 1.32 4WHIP
Why He Should Start: On the surface, Baker looks like the obvious odd man out. His overall numbers don't compare favorably with either of his competitors in this race, and surely most fans have a sour taste in their mouth after he failed to protect a four-run lead against the White Sox last night. But let's look more closely. If the playoffs started today, the other three entrants from the American League would be Texas, New York and Tampa Bay. It seems fairly likely that those three outstanding teams will hold their ground until October. In five starts against those three opponents, Baker owns a 2.53 ERA and has posted a 31-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 32 innings. That's pretty dominant and suggests that, while Baker's results have been inconsistent this year, he has not cowered against top teams. He's also the most experienced member of the group.
Why He Shouldn't Start: The aforementioned inconsistency is a serious concern with Baker. On certain days he looks dazzling, while on others he's prone to leaving multiple pitches hanging over the plate. It's no surprise that he leads the team in home runs allowed with 21, and in tightly contested postseason games that susceptibility to coughing up the long ball can be a death knell. Baker's K/BB ratio is fantastic, but with opponents hitting .284 and slugging .483 against him, one would have to be wary sending him to the hill for a key postseason start.
Season Stats: 76.1 IP, 6-1, 2.00 ERA, 42/19 K/BB, 1.05 WHIP
Why He Should Start: For a second consecutive season, Duensing has stepped into the Twins rotation and played the role of savior, providing big start after big start. Since taking over for the beleaguered Blackburn, Duensing has gone 3-0 with a 2.43 ERA in five starts, highlighting his impressive run with a shutout of the A's on Saturday. Despite lacking the ability to miss bats at the rate of Baker or Slowey, Duensing has been the least hittable member of the group this year as he's holding opponents to a measly .223 average. He's also given up only five home runs. In last year's ALDS, circumstances forced Duensing to take the mound in Game 1 and he held his own against the Yankees in New York, so he's no stranger to the pressures of October.
Why He Shouldn't Start: The main reason Duensing shouldn't be in the postseason rotation, and the reason I would probably choose him as the odd man out, actually has nothing to do with any particular flaw in his game. He's simply far more valuable to the bullpen than Baker or Slowey. Duensing was a tremendous asset to the Twins relief corps over the first several months of the season, posting a 1.67 ERA over 39 appearances and coming up big in several high-leverage situations. He has held left-handed hitters to a .143 average and .414 OPS this season. With Jose Mijares' health being in flux and with Ron Mahay being Ron Mahay, Duensing figures to be the Twins' top weapon against tough left-handed hitters come October.
At least that's my take. Obviously, things can change in a hurry over the next several weeks and it's possible that injuries or performance will make the decision a far easier one by the time the postseason rolls around. As things currently stand, though, I'd have Slowey and Baker starting the third and fourth games of a postseason series (though if it was an elimination game, I might be tempted to start Pavano or Liriano on short rest in Game 4).
What about you? If things stay roughly the same as they are now, how would you structure a Twins playoff rotation?