It didn't take long for the Twins' starting pitching depth to be tested -- and to expose the one area that could be an albatross for several years.
Scott Baker's right elbow flared up during spring training, and Jason Marquis had to leave camp after his daughter was seriously injured in a bicycle accident. Liam Hendriks, on the club as a replacement for Marquis, landed in a hospital because of food poisoning.
By the end of the first weekend of the season, the Twins had to use Anthony Swarzak as an emergency starter. When examining the options behind Swarzak, the Twins' future appears precarious.
The rotation at Class AAA Rochester consists of Sam Deduno, P.J. Walters, Cole DeVries, Daryl Thompson and Scott Diamond. DeVries was a non-drafted free agent. Diamond is a former Rule 5 pick who won't be confused for Johan Santana. The others are minor league free agents.
At Class AA New Britain, there's former first-round pick Alex Wimmers, who is coming back after severe control problems last season and needs time to develop. There's also Luke French, another minor league free-agent signee with major league experience with Detroit and Seattle.
The Twins hope that, sometime next season, former first-round draft pick Kyle Gibson is ready to contribute after missing a year because of Tommy John elbow surgery.
The 2012 picture should get slightly better, because Marquis is expected to make his Twins debut within a week and Hendriks could start in a few days. Baker, however, remains out indefinitely.
And after this season, the rotation is anybody's guess. Marquis, Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano will be free agents in the offseason. The Twins do have a $9.25 million option on Baker's contract next season. Based solely on talent, picking up the option certainly would be worth considering. His injury history -- a shoulder problem in 2009, followed by three consecutive seasons with elbow problems -- makes that a much more difficult decision.
As of now, Gibson, Hendriks and Nick Blackburn look to be the core of the 2013 rotation. Moreover, aside from Gibson, the Twins don't appear to have anyone in the organization who fits the mold of a front-line starter.
Not to be an alarmist, but their starting pitching appears to be near crisis level. The Twins can't reopen their window of opportunity to compete while position players such as Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are around without a strong rotation. There are three ways they can improve the rotation, and all three must be considered and/or utilized.
1. The draft
The rotation's current state makes selecting a college pitcher with their second overall pick of the June draft the obvious choice. In fact, since the Twins have five of the first 73 picks in the June draft, they likely will select several pitchers and hope a couple move swiftly through the farm system.
The extra picks come at a time in which sweeping changes have been made to the draft in order to curtail wild spending. Teams won't be able to go over the league-suggested slot to sign players. That hurts teams such as Boston and Detroit, who had been willing to do so. The Twins, actually, have a little bit of an advantage. They have 13 picks in the first 10 rounds. Their bonus pool will be $12,368,200, the sum of the slot values of their picks. They won't have to stick to the value assigned to each pick, but they have to stay within the total budget number. So if they need a few extra bucks to entice a Mark Appel or Kyle Zimmer, it's available.
2. Free agency
With their payroll down to around $100 million, ownership should consider getting involved in free agency more than they ever have (three years and $21 million for Josh Willingham is the most they've ever spent on a free agent). Free agency can be expensive and unreasonable, but the alternative is watching teams in the division pass them by.
As of now, the upcoming free agent pitching list is intriguing. Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Tim Hudson, Dan Haren, Colby Lewis, Kyle Lohse, Shawn Marcum, Jonathan Sanchez, Ervin Santana and James Shields could be on the market. Some will re-sign with their present clubs, but it's a much better crop than last year, when Edwin Jackson, who's 60-60 in his career, got $11 million from the Nationals.
What will happen this season if the Twins fall out of contention by mid-season? Pavano has achieved a lot while with the Twins, but if they can land a good prospect from a contender for him, the trigger needs to be pulled. Liriano, if he finds his form, would be their best commodity to land a couple young pitching prospects.
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire can keep having players report to spring training early to work on fundaments. He can add mini-camps and offseason team activities if he wants.
But if the organization can't get its starting pitching in order for the next few seasons, it will be hard for anyone to take them as a serious contender.
La Velle E. Neal III • firstname.lastname@example.org