If ever there was a clear culprit for a ruined season, it was the Twins' starting pitching corps in 2012. While reasonably decent in the lineup and bullpen, the team stood no chance of competing thanks to an outrageously bad year from the rotation.
Pinpointing exactly what went wrong within that unit is more complicated. When you're talking about a group that ranked last in the AL in ERA, hits allowed and opponent OPS, there are obviously a multitude of factors in play. But if you had to narrow the staff's troubles down to three principal issues, they'd probably be: 1) injuries, 2) lack of exceptional talent, and 3) heavy contact tendencies backed by a questionable defense.
Heading into the new campaign, it's hard to feel a whole lot better about any of those areas.
The injury bug has already bit, with the planned Opening Day starter (Scott Diamond) on the shelf and the most buzzworthy rotation contender (Samuel Deduno) also sidelined.
When it comes to talent available at the major-league level, it's not clear the Twins upgraded significantly in the offseason by swapping out Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker and Carl Pavano in exchange for Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey and Vance Worley.
And none of those new names are renowned for missing bats, a quality was sorely lacking in the 2012 season. Twins starters averaged 5.53 strikeouts per nine innings – the lowest figure for any MLB team's rotation since 2009. Considering that the Twins traded away arguably their two best defenders during the offseason, another endless barrage of balls in play doesn't bode especially well.
The downside is harrowing, but this unit is not without its glimmers of upside and intriguing storylines. Let's take a quick look at the five pitchers who will likely comprise the rotation when the season kicks off next week, as well as the various hurlers who will be lined up to step in when certain members inevitably falter.
1. Vance Worley, RHP
2012 Stats: 133 IP, 6-9, 4.20 ERA, 107/47 K/BB, 1.51 WHI
Acquired from Philly in the Ben Revere trade, Worley goes from being a back-end arm living in the shadows of Halladay, Hamels and Lee to Opening Day starter for the Twins. He draws that assignment largely because of circumstance, but he is the club's best hope for a legitimate rotation-fronter. He's still only 25, and his 3.50 career ERA is impressive. However, that success has come in the National League and now he must adjust to the more relentless AL format, with designated boppers replacing pitchers in opposing lineups. This transition, along with a surgically repaired elbow that bogged him down in the latter part of the '12 season, could prevent him from achieving the same type of results.
2. Kevin Correia, RHP
2012 Stats: 171 IP, 12-11, 4.21 ERA, 89/46 K/BB, 1.30 WHIP
If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say nothing at all. Moving on…
3. Mike Pelfrey, RHP
2012 Stats: 19.2 IP, 0-0, 2.29 ERA, 13/4 K/BB, 1.42 WHIP
An imposing presence on the mound at 6'7" and 250 lbs, with velocity to match, Pelfrey had his ups and downs while playing for the Mets. A strong and resilient arm enabled him to make 31-plus starts in four straight seasons before his elbow gave out early last year, and now he'll test that arm to the max as he seeks to return to the mound in the opening week, which would give him the fastest Tommy John recovery for a starting pitcher, ever. What's more: most pitchers who have come back anywhere near this timeframe have done so late in a season, tossing a few innings and then resting up over the winter. Pelfrey is attempting to come back after 11 months and take on a full season's workload, which is basically unheard of. I'll be wishing him the best but expecting plenty of bumps early on, especially since it sounds like his velocity still isn't close to pre-surgery norms.
4. Liam Hendriks, RHP
2012 Stats: 85.1 IP, 1-8, 5.59 ERA, 50/26 K/BB, 1.55 WHIP
In spite of his tremendous production in the minor leagues, Hendriks has looked out of place pitching in the majors, timidly going after hitters with a repertoire that simply hasn't been effective at the highest level. In 85 innings spread across 16 starts last year, the right-hander coughed up 106 hits, including 17 home runs. He pitched well enough this spring to justifiably earn a job but was far from dominant. His superb track record while rising through the Twins' system is deserving of a long look this year, particularly with the dearth of other quality options, but if his results are similar he may have a hard time finding such an opportunity.
5. Cole De Vries, RHP
2012 Stats: 87.2 IP, 5-5, 4.11 ERA, 58/18 K/BB, 1.21 WHIP
De Vries is in the same boat as Hendriks in that he lacks outstanding stuff -- in fact, he has less velocity and his secondary pitches produce less bite, from my view -- but he managed to garner much better results in a similar sample size last year and the same was true this spring. De Vries carries a shiny 0.64 ERA and has been almost unhittable in Grapefruit League action, but it will take a lot more than that to prove that the 28-year-old longtime farmhand belongs in a big-league rotation. As a Minnesota native, a former Gopher and by all accounts a nice guy, I'm rooting for him. But I can't help feeling that his presence in the rotation is a major indictment of where this team is at as the season gets underway.
... That's how the rotation will shape up at the start of the season, and it's without question going to be worst group the league has to offer, on paper. The best hope for the Twins is that some of the pitchers listed below will replace weak links over the course of the summer, allowing this unit to get stronger as the season goes on.
Scott Diamond, LHP: He opens the season on the DL, since recovery from a minor offseason elbow surgery has dragged on longer than expected, but he's on pace to return in mid-April and will probably unseat the worse performer between Hendriks and De Vries.
Samuel Deduno, RHP: After an electric performance for Team Dominicana in the World Baseball Classic, Deduno was ready to jump into the rotation with a head full of steam. Unfortunately, a groin injury will delay his opportunity to transfer the preseason success to meaningful MLB games, but when he finally takes the mound for Minnesota he'll be doing so with the most confidence of his career. Deduno is one to watch.
Kyle Gibson, RHP: The Twins left the door open for Gibson to win a spot in the rotation, but some ugly bouts with command this spring confirmed that he's not quite ready yet. Chances are good that he will be after sharpening up for a month or two in Triple-A, and at that point he could immediately become the team's best starter.
P.J. Walters, RHP: Walters is always going to be interesting because he spins a dynamite breaking ball, but unfortunately the nasty hook comes coupled with a fastball that falls blatantly short of major-league quality. Still, if you need a spot starter in a pinch, he's not the worst guy to have on hand. He had some nice moments last year.
Rich Harden, RHP: He's worth mentioning here, because in a mix that lacks exciting upside he's the one guy who has been a top-flight MLB pitcher at one point in his career. He probably won't be an option until June at the earliest, but if Harden returns to the mound and is throwing well, he should have an easy path back to the majors.