In their second-to-last game of 2012, the Twins sent Anthony Swarzak to the hill. He turned in a sub par five-inning outing, and the Twins ended up losing by a run, their 95th loss of the season.
A pitcher who had no business starting a major-league game getting roughed up and putting his capable offense in a hole they couldn't dig out of. Minnesota's 2012 season in a nutshell.
Now, the above isn't intended as a slight toward Swarzak, whose overall campaign was hardly a disaster. When used in the long relief role, he was perfectly adequate, turning in a 4.05 ERA in 73 1/3 innings out of the bullpen and often effectively bridging the gap after short starts, which were depressingly frequent.
Swarzak was one of many hurlers who were successful when used in the proper role, which is one of the bigger positive takeaways for the pitching staff this year. Guys like Sam Deduno and Cole DeVries put forth efforts that would have been exemplary for a spot starter, but both were somewhat stretched when forced into more than a dozen games. Brian Duensing was outstanding as a reliever and horrible as a starter. Liam Hendriks dominated the minors but looked overmatched in the majors while the Twins had little choice but to keep trotting him out.
We'd probably view most of these pitchers differently if they hadn't been pressed so far beyond their expected roles. And of course, this was the result of what was without question the most notable development of the season: The five starters that the Twins expected to comprise their rotation at the beginning of the year (Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and Jason Marquis) combined to make a total of 54 starts.
There were many factors contributing to the entire preseason rotation being out of the picture by the end of July, and you could argue that many of them were foreseeable. Still, the Twins flipped tails five times with their five starters and when you have that kind of extraordinarily bad luck, you're bound to have a tough time competing, especially when you don't have much starting pitching depth to begin with.
Many things went wrong for the Twins, but it basically all comes back to starting pitching. Rarely has the culprit for a completely derailed season been so blatantly clear. That's a shame, as it covers up the assorted successes surrounding the relief corps and the offense.
In the bullpen, Glen Perkins backed up a breakout 2011 campaign with an even better season in which he handled everything thrown his way, taking over the closer role without a hitch after Matt Capps went down. Jared Burton and Casey Fien emerged as legitimate cogs, while Duensing remains one of the league's better lefty specialists. That's a solid, inexpensive core to build around.
In the lineup, the Twins stayed shockingly healthy all year. In 2011, only two players on the entire team (Michael Cuddyer and Danny Valencia) were able to amass 500 plate appearances; this year seven players topped that mark. From the point that the Twins finally settled on Ben Revere as the right fielder after cycling through several uninspiring options early on, the starting nine remained impressively stable throughout the summer (with the characteristic exception of the middle infield spots).
Not only were they healthier around the field, they were far more productive. The Twins went from having the second-worst OPS in the AL in 2011 (.666) to ranking ninth at .717 this year. They remained light on power, as they'll finish among the bottom three teams in slugging and homers, but they rank fifth in on-base percentage and are tied for first in stolen bases, which is more their traditional recipe for success anyway.
On Wednesday night the Twins will wrap up this 2012 season, and they might finish with only three fewer losses than they had last year. That's fairly discouraging, but for those who followed the club, there's just no way to come away with the same sense of all-encompassing ineptitude and frustration. This team's failures started and ended with a rotation that was grossly unequipped for the plights that would befall it over the course of the summer.
Does that make 95 losses easier to swallow? I guess, for me, it does. Mistakes were made and there's obviously work to be done, but I feel a whole lot better about this organization's outlook going forward than I did a year ago, even if the improvement in the W/L column was negligible.