FORT MYERS, Fla. – All Rick Anderson wanted was a shot.
From 1978-86, he toiled in the New York Mets minor-league system. For six years, he shuttled between Double-A and Triple-A. Guys like Dwight Gooden, Sid Fernandez, Ron Darling, Rick Aguilera, Randy Myers, and Roger McDowell got promoted ahead of him.
In 1986, Anderson met with Mets assistant general manager Joe McIlvaine after holding out.
“He said, ‘This isn’t about the money is it?'” Anderson recalled. “And I said, ‘Absolutely not. I could take 100 years in the minor leagues. But if I had never gotten one chance I’ll never think I got fulfilled.’
On June 9, 1986, Anderson debuted against the Philadelphia Phillies. He gave up one unearned run in seven innings. He stayed with the team the rest of the season but didn’t make the playoff roster when the Mets won the World Series.
But he got his shot. “That’s all anyone wants,” Anderson said.
Fast forward to 2012.
Anderson’s heart was warmed last season when the Minnesota Twins pitching coach gave Cole DeVries his first shot at starter. And Samuel Deduno and Esmerling Vasquez. Scott Diamond, Liam Hendriks and P.J. Walters also got more big-league starts than they ever had before.
In 2012, the Minnesota Twins paraded out 12 starting pitchers. None of them threw more than 175 innings. One of them –Diamond – made more than 17 starts. Only three worked more than 100 innings.
The results were predictable. In going 66-96, the Twins had the second-worst ERA (4.77) and average runs allowed (5.14) in the American League. They also ranked among the worst in hits given up (1,536), home runs (198), shutouts (six), complete games (three) and strikeouts (943). Minnesota pitchers did allow a respectable number of walks (465), but Anderson took heat – as well as a few jokes – for the team’s long-time tactic of “pitching to contact.”
This offseason, the Twins worked to shore up their starting staff as general manager Terry Ryan acquired Vance Worley, Kevin Correia and John Pelfrey. They’ll join Diamond – who’s expected to be back on the mound in mid-March – and either Kyle Gibson, Deduno, De Vries or Nick Blackburn. Gibson, the team’s 2009 first-round pick who’s coming off Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, appears to have the inside track on the No. 5 job.
“You know what, I loved to see those guys out there,” Anderson said. “Now we should be able to benefit from it. Say they don’t break with us this year, they’ve get more experience in Triple-A and they may not be in as much awe.
“But I’d sure like a couple of veterans to lead the way and show the kids what it’s all about.”
When the Twins celebrated their 50th season – and first in Target Field – in 2010 with a 94-68 record and Central Division championship, starters Blackburn, Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey all had between 26 and 32 starts. All had 10 or more wins.
That starting staff has been completely overturned. The last piece, Blackburn — in danger of losing his job, anyway – has his wrist in a cast, which means he won’t be ready for the regular-season opener.
Last season, the injuries to him and others kept mounting. That led to the ever growing number of starters used.
“I think our entire Triple-A roster made a start at some point,” Diamond said.
“I told Terry if there were one or two spots, I could handle that because you know what you got from the other guys,” Anderson said. “Filling four or five spots, that’s a real challenge.
“It was what you expect from kids, ups and downs. You try to convey what we want but also keep them positive, keep them upbeat. But again, it would’ve been nice to have a couple of veterans leading and sitting with these guys.”
Diamond ended up being the most pleasant surprise. He led the team in innings (173), starts (27), quality starts (16) and wins (12).
“That was neat to see with Diamond,” Anderson said. “He came into his own. He was one of the babies. He learned and progressed. Some develop more than others. With Diamond, it took about two years.”
In one of his first career starts against Cleveland, Diamond recalled seeing players like Travis Hafner and “those kinds of names you grew up watching and there was an awe factor. I think that was my weakness.”
From having success and building confidence, he realized he belonged.
“I was not being wowed,” he said. “I was like (closer) Glen Perkins.”
Diamond said he’s progressing well in his recovery from surgery to remove a bone chip in his left elbow.
“There’s been so setbacks,” he said. “The schedule is for me to get out there mid-March, but things can change.”
In assessing his other starters, Anderson said Correia, an innings eater in Pittsburgh, “finds way to get hitters out. A veteran who uses all his pitches.”
Worley: “Game on. Quick worker. Attacks strike zone.”
Pelfrey: “Boy, makeup through the roof. Works his butt off. Good guy. Excited to be out there and we’re excited to have him.”
Hendriks: “I’ve told him, ‘You’ve done a good job of beating up Triple-A. You don’t have anything to prove there. You’re healthy. Now it’s up to you. It’s time to get it done.”
Gibson: “Great stuff. Real good makeup, he’s got it all. He’s coming off Tommy John, so we have to keep an eye on him.”
Deduno: “He’s been throwing it over this spring. In past, it’s been hit or miss. He’s always had great stuff. At the (World Baseball Classic), we told the Dominican people he can go as long as he starts.”
De Vries: “He was a pleasant surprise. He had some good starts.”
Anderson added Brian Duensing will work in the bullpen exclusively while the team is taking it slow with Rich Harden, a onetime ace who is attempting a comeback from shoulder issues.
“He won’t be ready for the season,” Anderson said. “We want to get the shoulder where it should be. He’s got a little ways to go so we’re not rushing.”
Since Anderson was named Twins pitching coach in 2002, he has built quite a resume. In his 36th year in professional baseball, Anderson has helped Minnesota win six Central Division titles. Since 2002, Minnesota’s 4.11 ERA ranks third in the AL while in the last three years, Twins’ pitchers rank No. 1 in fewest walks allowed.
However, with Minnesota a combined 66 games under .500 the past two years, Anderson’s pitching-to-contact philosophy – along with his pitchers – have taken a beating.
“Pitching to contact is not throwing the ball down the middle and letting them hit,” Pelfrey said. “You’re gonna get hit and not get outs. Like the other day, I was middle to third over the plate. I got hit, it’s supposed to happen. You put the ball on the corners to get people out.
“If you end up falling behind 3-1 and pitch to contact, you’re giving in and getting shellacked. At 3-1, you don’t have to give in. You can throw the curve or change up and get guys guessing.
“And a walk is not always a bad thing.”
In his short time working with Anderson, Pelfrey has been impressed.
“He’s been absolutely great,” Pelfrey said. “He’s awesome.”
Other pitchers have similar sentiments. “He’s good at keeping you one step ahead without complicating things,” Diamond said.
With both he and his pitchers realizing it’s more lack of execution than philosophy, Anderson said he’s sticking to his principles. He understands there’s a learning curve and that young guys are going to learn the hard way facing major league sluggers.
This year, the terminology and verbiage will change.
“Do I say every day, ‘Pitch to contact?’ ” Anderson said. “No. Be aggressive. Attack the zone. Trust your stuff. Strike 1. The key count is 1-1. It’s a 200-point difference (1-2 vs. 2-1). It is the execution.
“We’ve been very successful for years. The last few years with injuries and what not, all of a sudden it’s not good enough?
“I tell you, we’re not going to change because it’s been pretty good for a long time.”