MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Carl Pavano’s return to the Minnesota Twins brought the steady, durable and experienced right-hander back to the top of the rotation.
This also created a pool of six established starting pitchers for the five spots.
With Pavano and left-hander Francisco Liriano in line for the top two slots, that leaves a four-for-three fight that ought to be one of the most intriguing developments to follow during Twins spring training.
Lefty Brian Duensing and righties Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey will be scrutinized throughout February and March. So, fellas, how do you feel about this stiff competition?
“It’s for the better,” Duensing said. “It’s going to make everyone push themselves and be more prepared.”
One by one, at the team’s annual fan festival in Minnesota last month, they calmly expressed a bring-it-on attitude.
“My objective always is to maximize my ability the best I can,” Baker said. “If that’s good enough it’s good enough. If it’s not it’s not. For me to worry or to concern myself whether I’m going to be a starter or a reliever, whatever they want to do, I don’t think that’s healthy.”
Hey, they’re all in this together, even if one of them is going to be left out.
“It’s good for the club that that’s finally an issue as opposed to just trying to scratch together a rotation,” Blackburn said.
Putting more pressure on themselves won’t help.
“I don’t think there’s really anything to do differently,” Slowey said. “For me as a pitcher I’m going to do as best I can, and I’m going to leave the decisions as to whether or not that’s good enough to somebody else.”
Pavano was a give-me-the-ball bulldog who beat a number of opposing aces last season, but at age 35 without blazing velocity he’s not considered a true No. 1 starter. Liriano has the ability, but he’s still prone to lapses and inconsistency. So the lack of that Johan Santana remains one of the areas that could hurt the Twins.
Depth, then, is what the Twins will bank on with their starting pitching, if they don’t have the next Cy Young Award winner.
“Everybody wants those aces,” general manager Bill Smith said recently. “There aren’t that many out there, and they’re very difficult to get. Pavano has been a huge leader for us in the rotation. Liriano has stepped up and had a big year for us last year. And don’t forget Baker and Blackburn, Slowey and Duensing. One of the challenges you have is they don’t all get better every year, but we had some guys that maybe took a little step back last year that we’re hoping will step back up this year.”
Duensing has had the most success, albeit the smallest sample size. He has been in the postseason rotation each of the last two years, and the Twins were 9-4 in his 13 starts after he moved from the bullpen to replace the struggling Blackburn in July. Duensing, though, is also the most valuable reliever of the group after posting a 1.67 ERA and .214 opponent batting average over 40 appearances, mostly as a situational lefty.
Duensing also makes the least amount of money of the four, with Baker and Blackburn working on multiyear, multimillion deals and Slowey getting a raise this season to $2.7 million in his first year of arbitration eligibility.
“I’m trying to get a starting rotation spot. If I don’t and they move me to the bullpen, that’s fine too,” Duensing said. “I feel like it’d be easier to prepare to be a starter and go to a reliever spot, than the other way around.”
Baker is halfway through a $15.25 million, four-year contract that also includes a $9.25 million club option for the 2013 season. After just missing a perfect game in 2007 and a breakout year in 2008, he hasn’t been quite as good the last two seasons. His elbow bothered him, and he had a cleanup surgery to remove bone chips.
Baker touted his “newfound range of motion” at TwinsFest in January, but two weeks ago felt some discomfort and slowed down his throwing program. This was the first procedure he’s ever had on his arm, but since it was minor he said he’s not concerned.
“As long as it feels good I’m not worried about mechanics, location, whatever,” Baker said. “I’m not worried about that. If I’m executing pitches then I’m happy.”
Blackburn got a $14 million, four-year contract last spring and had his worst of three major league seasons, even getting sent to Triple-A Rochester for a short time to refine his mechanics and regain some confidence. Blackburn needed surgery at the end of last year, too, to get rid of chips and spurs in his elbow.
Blackburn said he actually pitched better when he was in the most pain last season. But he endured some tough stretches where he didn’t feel like he could get any batter out.
“At times I was scared for myself that I was going to get killed out there,” Blackburn said. “I was just laying ’em up there and people are tattooing ’em everywhere. It’s kind of a defenseless feeling.”
Blackburn said the first few times he threw his arm “felt amazing.”
Slowey dealt with an injury last year, too, coming off wrist surgery that cut short his 2009 season. He won a career-high 13 games and made 28 starts, but he was hampered by inconsistency and failed to finish the second inning twice.
“Those were only two games, so it’s not like it had a huge effect on the whole season, but it did have an effect on me personally,” Slowey said. “So trying to avoid games like that and trying to figure out why they happen. What was the cause of them and stuff like that. Really there’s no major overhaul to be done I don’t think. Just excited to get to spring training and get after it.”