Everyone, including Terry Ryan, seems to agree that pitching, particularly the starting rotation, was the Twins most glaring weakness. But simply fixing the pitching may or may not be enough to put the Twins in contention next season. To decide what is needed to put the Twins in contention, one first needs to evaluate what happened last year and what might be expected next year if there are no changes over the winter. Lets start that process with the Twins rotation in order of number of starts:
Scott Diamond had 27 starts last year after beginning the season at AAA. He was clearly the Twins most productive starter and many people are inking him into the rotation next season. That means he is likely to get another 8 starts and if he produces like last season that will bring some overall improvement to the Twins starting pitching. Diamond got to the major leagues last year by pitching better than he ever had before. If that improvement was permanent, his additional starts next year will make the Twins rotation better. But its possible that was a career effort that he can't sustain.
Nick Blackburn got 19 starts last year and was terrible. While its possible he will win a spot in the rotation, he won't get 19 starts with the kind of performance he had last year. Its likely whoever takes those starts, even if its himself, will do much better.
Francisco Liriano got 17 starts. He was exactly the same inconsistent starter we have come to expect. He had performances that ranged from lights out to terrible. While his replacements may not shut teams down the way Liriano did when on his game, its likely they will provide a better return for the Twins. Liriano only won three games and it wasn't really for lack of run support.
Cole Devries and Liam Hendriks each started 16 games. Devries was probably the Twins second most effective starter after Diamond. His only major flaw has been the long ball and its possible he can eliminate some of those mistakes and actually do better. Even absent improvement, if he pitches that way for a full year he will help the Twins rotation. Of course, like Diamond, he lacks a track record and its perfectly possible he won't be able to repeat even last year's performance.
Hendricks is a bit different. He has had outstanding success, but has failed to translate it to the big leagues. Its doubtful he will get 16 starts again next year if he doesn't show more than he has at the big league level. Even a below average replacement taking those starts will improve the Twins pitching. There is still some hope Hendricks might give the Twins more than that.
Sam Deduno got 15 starts. He was probably the third most productive starter. He has a fastball with tremendous movement. This makes him difficult to hit and produces some strikeouts. It also results in way too many walks. Like Devries, a full season of starts like last year would be an improvement for the Twins. But whether he can continue to have success given his walks is a big question mark.
PJ Walters got 12 starts. They were not very good. Its possible the Twins will give 12 starts to someone who pitches like Walters next year, but it is not going to be hard to find a replacement who does at least ast well. Walters was re-signed as a minor league free agent, but he will have to improve to get many starts next year.
Carl Pavano got 11 starts. Pavano was hurt, struggled and then spent the rest of the year on the disabled list. His overall performance was similar to Walters and should be easily replaced. He is a free agent and its possible the Twins will resign him, but at his age I doubt he gets 11 starts like last year before he pitches himself out of a job. He will have to do much better than that. This is an opportunity for improvement.
Brian Duensing also got 11 starts. He bounced back and forth between the rotation and bullpen, doing much better out of the pen. Its not likely he will get 11 starts unless he improves. Another opportunity for the Twins to do better.
Jason Marquis got 7 starts and was a disaster. The Twins should do better, but its not really that unlikely that they will audition someone else for 7 starts who does about as bad.
Esmerling Vasquez got 6 starts in a September callup and didn't do well. Again, the Twins can improve if they can avoid these kinds of unsuccessful auditions.
Anthony Swarzak got 5 starts. These were all spot starts, he was never really in the rotation. His results in spot starts were pretty terrible overall, but it would not be a surprise if he reprised that role next year with better results. Its unlikely he will be given the chance the results aren't better.
So there were 92 starts where we might expect opportunities for improvement (Blackburn, Liriano, Hendricks, Walters, Pavano, Duensing, Vasquez).
There were 13 starts which we can expect similarly poor results (Swarzak and Marquis) from pitchers in similar roles.
There were 58 starts (Diamond, Devries and Deduno) where we can expect similar results and the potential for those three pitchers to pitch around 100 starts next year at those same levels. That is not to suggest that Diamond, Devries and Deduno are going to start 100 games next year with the same results as this year. The Twins have said they are looking for three starters, so clearly they are not counting on a scenario where that happens.
What I think this list does show is that the bar for those three starters is pretty low. It will not take much to produce better results than last year. There are a LOT of opportunities for players to do better even with mediocre results. Of course, mediocre results won't get the Twins into the playoffs. That is a further discussion.
Evaluating Next Year's Twins Part II