We'll get back to politics tomorrow. Meanwhile, let's talk baseball. When we left off, we were discussing the Twins, who will be a very different team this year. The topic today is pitching. Next week, we'll get to my beloved Brewers.
When the Twins won the division in 2006, their starting rotation featured Johan Santana, Brad Radke, Carlos Silva, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser. It is quite possible that, two years later, there will be five different pitchers in the rotation. Radke has long since retired to his fishing boat, while Santana and Silva are now wealthy plutocrats pitching on opposite coasts. That leaves Liriano, who was absent all of 2007 following surgery, and Bonser, who might as well have been absent in 2007. If things break right, the Twins could have a very good rotation this season. If things go wrong, it could get ugly in a hurry.
The always helpful and amusing Dorky Dad suggested that the Twins should bring in Fidel Castro for a tryout. While Twins management didn't hop on that eminently sensible solution, they did bring in a different ancient Cuban, Livan Hernandez. Hernandez, who I believe was 32 when he defected from Cuba over a decade ago is apparently still 32 years old now, at least according to birth registrar Danny Almonte, and has been a reliable if unspectacular vagabond pitcher throughout his major league career, regularly pitching about 200 innings and managing to be quietly surly everywhere he goes. He's not a long-term solution, but he'll certainly fill Silva's spot in the rotation. For now, it appears that the most likely opening day starter is Scott Baker, who has shown flashes of brilliance but not a lot of consistency during his time in Minnesota. The Twins would love Liriano to take the top spot and based on his spectacular 2006 season, he could be a top line starting pitcher. He's going to have to prove he can go, however. And getting to spring training late because of visa issues isn't a good start.
Beyond those three spots, things get murky. Bonser has lost a lot of weight in the offseason and should be stronger as a result, but he doesn't have great stuff and has to be very fine to succeed. Last year he would get wild and things got ugly in a lot of his starts. That can't happen this year if the Twins are going to be successful. For now, you assume that Bonser is the fourth starter, but that could change. The fifth spot is where it gets interesting. The aptly named Kevin Slowey was pretty so-so in his few stints with the big club last year. He's very smart but he has even less stuff than Bonser. He has almost no margin for error. Few pitchers with a similar makeup last very long. Orel Hershiser was one. There wasn't a lot of evidence that Slowey is like Hershisher, although he is a quote machine like Hershiser and if Slowey can last a few years in the bigs he should have a good chance to replace some the current cast of mumblers on ESPN's Baseball Tonight round about 2015 or so. If the Twins decide to take another lefty, oft-injured Glen Perkins might be the guy, but my guess is the quota of fragile lefthanders is filled in this rotation. Righthander Nick Blackburn was pretty good for AAA Rochester last year and will get a look, as will Mets newcomers Phil Humber and Kevin Mulvey. The early word on these two is that Mulvey is the better looking long-term prospect, but Humber might have a better chance of contributing this year. Look for Slowey to get the 5th spot and for one of the others to come north as a long reliever/spot starter. The guess here: Humber.
The relief corps is significantly better than the starters, but there are concerns here as well. Joe Nathan has been great ever since he came to Minnesota, but is unsigned and will likely be trade bait later on, especially if the Twins fall from contention. He'll be the closer for now. Pat Neshek was lights-out early in 2007 but tired down the stretch. He still has great stuff and that really funky delivery and should be the primary set-up guy. Juan Rincon has been mostly effective for the past few years, with a few conspicuous screw-ups, but I have a hunch that he might be moved this year. By the end of last season, Matt Guerrier was a better pitcher than Rincon and I suspect he'll have a larger role this year, possibly at Rincon's expense. Jesse Crain has been solid but was injured last year and no one knows if he'll be able to contribute. If he's healthy, he's someone you want around - he has very good stuff, including an explosive fastball. Dennys "Big Sweat" Reyes is the house lefty and was decent last year after an outstanding 2006. You worry about his conditioning, but he takes the ball 60-70 times a season and will probably do so again this year. That leaves the Humber/Mulvey/Perkins/Blackburn spot for the long man. If Rincon gets moved, my guess is that Perkins will be the next man up.
What kind of pitching staff will this be? An iffy one. It's going to be impossible for the Twins to replace the brilliant Santana and Silva was pretty good during his time here, even though he was often a frustrating guy to watch. The Twins play in an awfully rough division and it will be difficult to get much traction, but there's hope for the future, as many of these guys are young. If Liriano is ready, things will be much better. But for now, 85 wins looks like the ceiling for this bunch.
Next: my beloved Milwaukee Brewers