Do the Twins need an "ace"?
As the Twins fans saw in their two World Series victories, the playoffs reward teams with a couple very good pitchers over a deep rotation. But the flip side of that is that their run of ALC pennant races has shown how pitching depth can get you to the playoffs. The 2001 race, where they fell apart down the stretch, demonstrated how quick things can go south when a rotation lacks depth and is forced to experiment with young pitchers before they are ready.
The Twins go into 2011 with a rotation that is six deep. Its a rare season where a team gets by with mostly 5 starters. The chances that one of the initial five starters will get hurt or fail to perform is high. The Twins starting rotation, given that depth, should be the best in the division. But, while we may be getting ahead of ourselves worrying about the playoffs, depth is a lot less important once they start. This is why some fans are very concerned about the "ace" question.
Last year the Twins best pitcher was Carl Pavano. The other candidate would be Francisco Liriano. But Liriano got fewer batters out, pitching many fewer innings. And that is true even if you consider how many batters each pitcher faced. Pavano's lead in the much-maligned wins statistic probably reflected that ability to get hitters out. Pavano was also more durable, facing an average of 28 batters per start to Liriano's 26.
Durability is less an issue in the playoffs with protection of the bullpen less important. If your starters are wearing out the bullpen you probably aren't going very far in any case. But getting batters out remains the object and Pavano was better at that than Liriano last year. So the first question is whether Pavano can repeat his performance of last year. If he can, he is going to be the staff leader. Of course Liriano is still a young pitcher who was set back by injuries. So we may see him blossom into that quintessential ace who pitches deep into games and surpasses Pavano. If that happens, the Twins are going into the playoffs with two guys who can win against any competition. They may not be Johan Santana, or even Jack Morris, in his prime, but they are good enough to win the World Series if the rest of the team is on its game.