The Twins are trying to attack their pitching problems from all sides. In recent years they have splashed free-agent money on starters like never before, added a new pitching coach and looked into drafting power arms.
They have watched their pitch-to-contact formula blow up in their faces, as they have a severe shortage of pitchers who can get strikeouts when needed. During the offseason they attacked that problem by signing free-agent Ervin Santana, who struck out 8.22 batters per nine innings last season.
And now that signing, too, has blown up. Santana was suspended for 80 games Friday for testing positive for the drug Stanozolol, a steroid.
New pitching coach Neil Allen has the advantage of delivering a different message to pitchers who have been with the organization for years. But please understand that an old saying applies here — you can’t fall down when you’re already on the floor.
When it came to striking out batters, no one did it worse than the Twins in 2014. They averaged 6.47 strikeouts per nine innings last season, the worst in baseball. Only Colorado, at 6.75, joined them at below 7.0.
Lower strikeout totals mean more balls in play, and the Twins had the majors’ worst batting average on balls in play against (.317). The defense has a hand in that, too, and the Twins’ corner outfielders — Oswaldo Arcia in left and Torii Hunter in right — must prove they can run down some of the balls that fell in last season.
The Twins also gave up 147 homers last year, 10th most in the majors. Thank heavens Target Field isn’t a hitter’s park.
For the Twins to show marked improvement now, without Santana, Phil Hughes will have to pitch like he did last year, when he went 16-10; Kyle Gibson has to take another step in his development; and Ricky Nolasco has to prove he’s not the 6-12 pitcher he was last season. Mike Pelfrey will be asked to pick up Santana’s spot in the rotation, and Tommy Milone must be better than he was last season.
The bullpen is screaming for power pitchers. Glen Perkins has that kind of velocity, but the bridge to the ninth inning is built with finesse pitchers and trickery. Michael Tonkin, who throws hard, might get an early recall from the minors if he can show more consistency. Other than that, there aren’t many bat-missers who are near helping.
Down the line, there figure to be impact pitchers in the rotation and the bullpen. Jose Berrios, who could debut this season, throws a fastball that can reach 95 miles per hour and has moxie that belies his 20 years on Earth. Alex Meyer, another 2015 possibility, is a flamethrower. Kohl Stewart, the 2013 top pick, is a few years away and is another hard thrower. And the Twins drafted practically a whole bullpen last year, led by Nick Burdi, who hits 100 mph, and Jake Reed, who throws over 95.
So the future looks brighter. The present, not so much, especially without Santana for half the season.