Kyle Gibson wasn’t a math major at the University of Missouri, but he has no trouble counting to one. As in, the number of starting pitching jobs the Twins have open this spring.
Gibson is one of several Minnesota pitchers who will have their work cut out for them in Fort Myers, Fla., as they all fight for the fifth and final spot in the Twins’ rotation. Thanks to several offseason acquisitions, Minnesota has four of those five spots penciled in as Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes, Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey appear locks for starting jobs. Gibson hopes to join them.
"I’m excited that they’ve left a spot open to this point, that’s for sure," Gibson said late last month. "I think if I go into spring training and throw well, then that’s really all I can control. There’s five, six, however many other guys competing for that one spot. If I throw well and I’m not the guy, then I’ve got to go to Triple-A and be ready."
If he hopes to break camp with the Twins at the end of March, the 26-year-old Gibson will have to beat out a number of other pitchers for the job. That includes left-hander Scott Diamond, who was Minnesota’s most consistent pitcher in 2012 but took a step backward in 2013.
Like Gibson, Diamond realizes just how important this spring training is for him. At the same time, putting added pressure on himself will likely only make things worse.
"I can really only focus on what I’m doing," Diamond said. "If I start getting lost in checking scoreboards or stats or whatever and start thinking about what Terry Ryan or (manager Ron Gardenhire or pitching coach Rick Anderson) want to do with the pitching staff, then I’m just going to start overcomplicating and then it’s going to lead out to more clouding thoughts on the mound."
Along with Gibson and Diamond, others expected to compete for the final rotation spot include right-handers Samuel Deduno and Vance Worley, as well as pitching prospect Alex Meyer — who enters camp as a bit of a longshot for the job. Worley was the Twins’ Opening Day starter last year but spent most of 2013 in the minors. Deduno possesses arguably the best stuff of any of these candidates, but control could still be an issue for the 30-year-old Dominican native.
Gibson made his major league debut in 2013 and went 2-4 with a 6.53 ERA in 10 starts with the Twins. While disappointing, those numbers likely won’t have a huge impact on his chances of breaking camp with the club. A strong spring training could make a difference, but there are other factors involved.
"It’s a whole lot easier when I (simplify) it down and just say, ‘You know what, just go out and throw as well as you can,’" Gibson said. "If you throw as well as you can and you don’t give up a run in spring training and Scott Diamond doesn’t give up a run and Scott Diamond’s the one who gets the spot, there’s really nothing I can do. I’ve just got to be ready whenever it’s my turn, whether it’s at the beginning of the season or the middle of the season."
Diamond has always been one to prepare thoroughly before each start and has taken an analytical approach to his outings. Yet he admitted that after the 2013 season was over, he didn’t really go back and pick apart his performances. Instead, he watched some film of another lefty, Philadelphia’s Cliff Lee. Diamond said he tries to emulate Lee’s approach on the mound and in the way he attacks hitters.
While Diamond’s 2013 numbers weren’t where he would have liked them to be — his ERA of 5.43 was nearly two runs higher than it was in 2012 — he was encouraged by his final start of the year. After struggling to keep the ball down in the strike zone for a stretch of time, Diamond finally did so in his 24th and final start.
After figuring some things out with his mechanics late in the year, Diamond hopes he can carry it over into the spring and, possibly, to the majors at the beginning of the season.
"That small adjustment I think really helped make me feel a lot more confident going into the offseason," Diamond said. "It was just a small adjustment. From there I was able to progress and continue to reflect in a more positive fashion."
It’s highly unlikely that Diamond and Gibson will be major league teammates when the Twins open the year in Chicago on March 31. There is a possibility, however, that they could be in the same rotation at Triple-A Rochester instead.
Neither pitcher wants to think too much about the pressures of earning that fifth and final rotation spot, but there’s no denying that it could be the most closely watched battle in camp this spring.
"That’s kind of part of the business side of it. It’s never exciting," Gibson said. "There’s going to be two or three guys there who are going to throw well this spring training and the club’s going to have a tough decision to make. That’s my job is to make the decision as tough as possible."