Eight different pitchers have started at least six games for the Twins this season:

Three of them — Phil Hughes, Ervin Santana and Ricky Nolasco — were high-dollar free agents.

Three of them — Kyle Gibson, Tyler Duffey and Trevor May — either came up through the Twins’ organization or, in the case of May, came over as highly touted prospects in a trade.

Two of them — Tommy Milone and Mike Pelfrey — were largely afterthoughts. They were guys who provided depth and insurance but didn’t figure much into more grand short- or long-term plans.

In modern baseball, though, you need those insurance plans — as has been proven by the Twins’ need over the past several years to trot out far more than five starting pitchers over the course of a season.

Hughes and Nolasco have been injured. Santana was suspended for half the season. Those three pitchers, in whom the Twins have invested more than $150 million total, have the three worst ERAs among the eight Twins pitchers who have made at least six starts.

Combined, the three big-money guys have a 4.75 ERA in 250 innings of work this season. Hughes was largely OK before hurting his back, though he wasn’t close to being as sharp as he was last year. Santana has pitched better lately, giving hope that his dreadful post-suspension run is done. Nolasco has had another lost year.

Combined, the two afterthoughts/depth guys, Pelfrey and Milone, have a 3.93 ERA in 256.2 innings pitched this season. Pelfrey has fallen off a cliff lately, but he pitched into mid-June with a sub-3.00 ERA and into September before it rose about 4. He has at least provided some value for his $5.5 million contact this season.

Milone, though, is the real point of all this. Pitching on a one-year, $2.78 million deal after being acquired at last year’s trade deadline in exchange for spare outfielder Sam Fuld, Milone has arguably been the team’s most consistent starting pitcher over the past three months and therefore gains consideration as a season-saver for the Twins.

You’ll recall that Milone was excellent in his first start of the year, mediocre-to-bad in his next three and then spent a month in the minors. He dominated Class AAA and was summoned back to the big club for a start on June 4, not long after Ricky Nolasco made his final start on May 31.

Since then, Milone has made 15 starts with this line: 88.1 IP, 32 earned runs allowed, 18 walks, 64 strikeouts. Basically he’s worked just short of six innings per start and allowed just a shade over 2 earned runs in those outings. He also earned a save in that wacky but critical 12-inning win at Baltimore, giving him an overall ERA in that span of 3.28.

Monday was a good start (7 IP, 2 ER) for Milone, though it wasn’t his best start in that span. Still, it might qualify as his most important start of the bunch, since it halted what had the feel of a skid (Minnesota had lost three of four before beating the Royals 6-2).

miloneThe Twins have done this before. Joe Mays was a player to be named later in an inconspicuous August 1997 deal for Roberto Kelly. He became an All-Star in 2001 and was the winning pitcher in Game 1 of the 2002 ALCS — what remains Minnesota’s only ALCS victory since 1991. Carl Pavano arrived without much fanfare in 2009 in an August deal with Cleveland for Yohan Pino. He ended up being a bulldog in the Twins’ 2010 rotation.

Milone has offered similarly exceptional value for both the contract and the return in what looked to be somewhat of a throwaway deal for Fuld. There were concerns when Milone arrived last season that his decent stats in Oakland were a function of pitching half his games in a spacious ballpark. This year, Milone has a 3.54 home ERA and a 3.53 road ERA.

This spring, when I wrote in defense of Milone as a fifth starter option, there were Twins fans actively hoping Milone would fail so that we could get longer looks at a bunch of young pitchers.

It’s a good thing he hasn’t failed because the Twins most likely wouldn’t still be in contention if he did.

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