MINNEAPOLIS — During his young major-league career, Twins left-hander Brian Duensing has never complained about his role. He’s bounced between Minnesota’s rotation and its bullpen in three seasons and was always just happy to be in the majors.
Duensing’s role could likely change again for the 2012 season. After starting 28 games in 2011, Duensing is the probable candidate to move from the rotation to the bullpen after the Twins signed veteran Jason Marquis in the offseason.
Once again, it doesn’t matter to Duensing when he pitches.
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“I would prefer to start, but I understand the situation that we’re in now,” Duensing said last month at TwinsFest. “I know it’s cliché, but honestly, whatever I can do to help the team is what I’d like to do. If that’s coming out of the bullpen, whether it be long relief guy or every seventh day, it doesn’t matter to me as long as I can help the team and be pitching at this level.”
Carl Pavano, Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano are safe bets to join Marquis in the Twins’ rotation. The last spot will be a battle to watch in spring training, but Nick Blackburn will likely stay in the rotation, with Duensing the best bet for the bullpen given his experience as a reliever. In Duensing’s 109 career games, 59 appearances were in relief, often in a long relief role.
Still, Twins general manager Terry Ryan said nothing is set in stone just yet.
“We’ve got a situation there where we’ve got probably six, seven, eight guys that will be in the area of starting and potential to be starters,” Ryan said last month. “I wouldn’t eliminate Duensing. I wouldn’t eliminate (Anthony) Swarzak. I wouldn’t eliminate (Matt) Maloney. I wouldn’t eliminate (Scott) Diamond. …
“We’re going to end up opening that thing up down there. Obviously we’ll have decisions to make. If everyone stays healthy, then we will have good problems.”
In 28 starts last season, Duensing was 9-13 with a 5.24 ERA. He pitched one shutout against the Tampa Bay Rays but also had four outings in which he gave up seven runs in 4 2/3 or fewer innings.
Duensing seemed to take the losses particularly hard last season. After some games, he’d stare blankly into his locker or at the ground, clearly frustrated by his performance.
“I know I didn’t have the best year last year,” Duensing said. “I know for me personally, I was leaving the ball up in the zone a lot. I’m a ground ball guy, and if I leave the ball up I’m going to get hit pretty good. I had the ball up in the zone, so I’ve got to refocus and go back to what I’m good at doing.”
While Duensing says he’s fine with whatever role the Twins see fit for him, the 28-year-old lefthander knows that uncertainty means this upcoming spring training is a big one for him. Minnesota’s pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers, Fla., on Saturday, which will be Duensing’s first chance to prove he can rebound from a down year in 2011.
“It’s important because it was a little bit of a shaky season,” he said. “It’s just important because I don’t know what role I’m going to be in, so I’ve got to be ready to go with both.”
Some of Duensing’s closest friends from last year’s team won’t be joining he and the Twins in Fort Myers, however. Duensing became particularly close with closer Joe Nathan, who earlier this winter signed as a free agent with the Texas Rangers. Duensing’s locker was just a few down from Nathan’s corner locker in Minnesota’s clubhouse, and Duensing said Nathan “taught me the ropes a little bit” when he broke into the majors in 2009.
Also gone are free agent outfielders Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, who signed with Colorado and Arizona, respectively, this offseason. Duensing said he and his wife, Lisa, grew close to both the Cuddyer and Kubel families.
“Cuddy, him and his wife, my wife and I owe them everything. They helped us out so much with everything,” Duensing said. “Any question we had about any matter, we could ask them and they’d help us out. Both those guys are good people. Same with the Kubels. My wife and his wife are good friends. Jason and I got along really well. It’s tough, but we also understand it’s part of the business.”
Indeed, the show must go on for the Twins without some of the big names they lost this offseason. Even with the likes of Cuddyer, Kubel and Nathan, Minnesota still lost 99 games in 2011.
It was the first losing season Duensing endured in his brief major league career. He’s optimistic it won’t happen again in 2012.
“Hopefully it’s a different year,” he said. “One thing I really hope doesn’t happen is if we start losing a few games, I hope no one panics. No one’s like, ‘Oh, here we go again’ or anything like that. … The season’s up and down. I think the big key will be is if we hit our first skid, however long it is, that no one panics and everyone stays positive and keeps pulling for each other. I think that’ll be a big key to the season, too.”