Twins hope revamped rotation will be more consistent, durable
FORT MYERS, Fla. — One of the great mysteries in pitching is that three-minute walk from the bullpen to the mound.
There have been stories of guys struggling to throw strikes in the pen, and then they go out and throw shutouts.
Conversely, guys have looked flawless in the pen, but when they get to the mound. . . .
"(Francisco) Liriano," Minnesota Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said. "(Manager Ron Gardenhire) would come down and stand in as a hitter and say, ‘How does he ever get hit?’ Then Liriano would get in a game and overthrow. What happened?’"
Anderson went through that a lot the past few seasons. Good sessions from his starters before the game, bad outings during it. "If we could find the secret, we’d all be pretty good," he said.
In 2014, the Twins at least think they have some consistency coming to their starting rotation.
They signed Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes in the offseason. Mike Pelfrey is progressing from Tommy John surgery almost two years ago. Kevin Correia, the team’s best starter last year, is plugging along. Kyle Gibson won the No. 5 job and, at 27, looks like he’s ready to pitch like the former No. 1 draft choice he is.
"We’re real excited about the rotation," Anderson said. "Our objective is to have 200-inning guys who can go deep in a game, which is huge."
Today, a pitcher doesn’t even have to log 200 innings to be considered durable. It’s more like 185.
When the Twins won their last Central Division championship in 2010, Carl Pavano threw 221 innings while the other starters were between 155-191.
Since Pavano’s 222 innings in 2011, the Twins haven’t had a pitcher go 200. Last season, Correia (185 1/3) and Pelfrey (152 2/3) had the most innings among starters. As a result, the bullpen was taxed and losses mounted in another 66-96 year.
"It’s hard to have what the Tigers have or what the Nationals have," Twins closer Glen Perkins said. "You have to be good from 1-5. You don’t have to raise the ceiling but you have to bring the floor up."
Hence the additions of Nolasco and Hughes.
Nolasco signed the team’s biggest free-agent contract in history â four years, $49 million with a fifth-year club option. He has won between 10 and 15 games in all but one season since 2006, while going over 185 innings five times.
Hughes, who signed a three-year deal for $24 million, has previously been a 16- and 18-game winner, while throwing between 145-191 innings the last three years.
Pelfrey threw 184 innings or more every year from 2008-11. Correia has thrown between 145-198 innings every season since 2009.
Last year, Correia and his teammates thought the pitching staff would be improved, but it wasn’t.
In a harbinger of things to come, 2013 Opening-Day starter Vance Worley struggled early, got injured and finished 1-5 with a 7.21 ERA. His frustrations were matched by the Twins, who traded him to Pittsburgh.
As Correia noted, other pitchers came up before they were ready and were hit hard, while Pelfrey was off and on as he recovered from a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
"This year, we think it’ll be different," Correia said. "We have experience and a lot less question marks."
Nolasco, who will start on Opening Day, has pitched with the Marlins and Dodgers but he’s a typical Twins pitch-to-contact hitter.
"Nothing overpowering but he uses all his pitches and he uses them in any count," Anderson said. "He keeps guys off balance and finds a way."
Pelfrey, who joined the Twins last season after playing for the Mets, is hoping Hughes finds leaving New York will breathe new life into his career.
"When you’re having a good year, there’s no better place than New York but when you’re having a bad year, there’s no worse place," he said. "That’s the way it is. They’ll eat you alive. It’s win now, it’s what are you doing for me now? I’ll be walking into the stadium and fans are screaming at me. I haven’t even stepped in the doors yet. And it’s hard to get away from it. There’s 30 media there every day. You have a bad start and you want to put it behind but you get a question every day.
"My last start there said it all. I gave up a run in the third and they booed me. When I left with a 3-1 lead, they gave me a standing ovation."
Anderson said when he talked to Hughes, he asked him about his New York experience.
"He said, ‘I struggled a few games, then I started pressing,’" Anderson said. "’I threw different pitches, then this isn’t working and that’s not working. Next thing, my head was spinning and I didn’t know where I was.’
"I think just the change of scenery and fresh start might be good for him."
Correia, who came to Minnesota last year, said he liked the team’s potential and has been impressed with the pitching additions.
"It’s been a bit of rebuilding time," he said. "We replaced this staff well. Having pitchers throw deep into games in important to every team. It’s not like, Oh, this team doesn’t have starting pitching and it’s good."
Kyle Gibson earned the team’s No. 5 job with a solid spring. "He handled that outstanding," Anderson said. In addition, offseason acquisitions Scott Diamond and Sam Deduno are available if there are injuries or anybody falters.
"(Gibson) competed and let his stuff work," Anderson said. "You always tell guys, ‘Let your stuff work. Let it happen. What got you here is going to keep you here.’"
Anderson added that triple-decked stadiums and hitters like Miguel Cabrera had his starters — especially the young ones — thinking and trying to do too much last year. "That’s why there’s sports psychologists," he said.
That led the team to turn to free agents in an effort to reverse three years of misery.
It has created optimism.
"That should be nice," Anderson said. "It’s an upgrade (general manager) Terry (Ryan), (assistant GM) Rob (Antony) and (owner) Mr. (Jim) Pohlad went out and got some pitching. It was a big need."