Twins’ starting rotation continues to struggle

MINNEAPOLIS — All offseason, the Twins preached the importance of bolstering a starting pitching rotation that was among the worst in baseball in 2012. Through two months of the 2013 season, Minnesota is still near the bottom of many starting pitching categories.

Prior to Thursday, Twins starters had a combined 5.64 ERA, tied with Houston for the worst in baseball. By comparison, Minnesota’s rotation had a collective 5.40 ERA by the end of last season. Only Colorado’s 5.80 ERA was worse.

Opponents batted .329 and slugged a remarkable .515 against Twins starters in the first 50 games prior to Thursday, both of which are easily the highest of any starting staff. The Astros are next at .304 and .502, respectively. The Chicago White Sox boast the best opponent batting average in the American League Central at a paltry .229, second-best in baseball.

Minnesota signed two veteran free agents and traded for another this past winter, but only one of the three has been reliable to date. That would be Kevin Correia, who is 5-4 with a 3.96 ERA in 10 starts. Right-hander Vance Worley, acquired in a trade with Philadelphia, was optioned to Triple-A Rochester earlier this month. And Mike Pelfrey, one year removed from Tommy John surgery, has been up and down in his first 10 starts. He’s 3-5 with a 6.85 ERA but has shown signs that he’s making progress post-surgery.

Left-hander Scott Diamond also had offseason elbow surgery and has not been as consistent as he was a year ago when he was Minnesota’s best starting pitcher. After his third rough outing in a row Tuesday in Milwaukee, Diamond now has a 5.22 ERA in nine starts.

“To say it’s disappointing, no. I think it’s just the unknown because of all these elbow things we’re dealing with,” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire of his rotation. “We’re just trying to play our way through it.”

As for the fifth spot in the starting rotation, Minnesota continues to mix and match. Earlier in the year, Pedro Hernandez and Liam Hendriks each made a few starts in that No. 5 spot. Currently, Samuel Deduno and P.J. Walters are up with the big league club as the Twins look for some semblance of consistency in the rotation. Both have made two starts since their call-ups from Triple-A Rochester.

Now that Minnesota’s season is two months old, the starting rotation remains a question mark.

“It’s kind of hard to sit and say, ‘Well, we were expecting this,'” Gardenhire said. “I think we were in the unknown when we got them over here. Correia’s been good for the most part. I think he’s done very, very well, which we were hoping he would do. The rest of them have kind of had their moments. It’s a work in progress.”

The biggest problem plaguing Minnesota’s rotation has been the inability to pitch deep into games. Too often the starters were knocked out after just four or five innings, which led to an overworked bullpen. The Twins’ starters have pitched a total of 269 1/3 innings in 51 games — an average of about 5 1/3 innings per start.

As a result, Minnesota’s bullpen entered Thursday having thrown the third-most innings of any relievers in baseball at 185 1/3.

“You look at innings pitched per start for our starting staff and it’s probably not where we want to be,” said general manager Terry Ryan. “I’m hoping we improve and increase that because we cannot keep getting into that bullpen early.”

The Twins have gotten a lift in the last two days from Deduno and Walters, two starters who began the year in Triple-A Rochester. Deduno pitched into the eighth inning in Wednesday’s win against the Brewers, while Walters gave the Twins six strong innings and left with a lead.

For a rotation desperately needing a shot in the arm, Deduno and Walters have done that the last few days.

“We’ve had some struggles with a couple people. For them to step in and get us at least to the second half of ballgames is huge right now,” Gardenhire said. “Especially with the number of games we’ve played and the amount of days and the struggles we went through losing those 10 games in a row where you’re getting four innings a game. These are huge performances, getting us to the second half of games.”

Minnesota’s rotation has had just 17 quality starts (an outing of at least six innings with three or fewer earned runs), which is tied with — surprise — Houston for the fewest of any starting staff. Walters nearly had one Thursday but gave up a run in the top of the seventh.

The Twins aren’t asking the starters to do a whole lot; get deeper into the games and give their team a chance to win. As the numbers have shown, that’s not happening often enough for Minnesota’s rotation, a reason the Twins are 23-28 following Thursday’s win.

“We’re just looking for quality starts,” Ryan said. “People laugh at that stat. You get a quality start and you’re going to win a lot of games.”

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.