Monday, December 19, 2011

Twins turn focus to free agent starters

The past week saw the Twins make one of their biggest free agent decisions in recent memory. With the signing of free agent outfielder Josh Willingham to a multi-year contract, the Twins made a conscious effort to cut ties with Michael Cuddyer and move the team in a new direction. Cuddyer was offered a larger contract to sign with the Rockies and the frustrations surrounding a 99-loss season might have pushed him out the door.

With the biggest free agent decisions now behind the Twins, the team's payroll is closing in on the $100 million mark that could be the cap for their spending. Even with the organization being close to the top of their spending limit, the team is still looking to add some parts to their roster before the organization reports to Ft. Myers for Spring Training in a couple of months. In an interview with 1500 ESPN on Sunday morning, Terry Ryan said the team is focused on adding a starting pitcher but if that is not able to happen the team could look at available relief options. Ryan also mentioned the names of Anthony Swarzak, Brian Duensing, Terry Doyle, and Matt Maloney as internal options to fill out the starting rotation.

Over the weekend, Jon Morosi of FOX Sports tweeted that the Twins were considering starting pitchers Joel Pineiro, Jeff Francis and Jon Garland. Each of these pitchers is not a front of the rotation arm but the Twins aren't in position to go after that type of player. There are some obvious question marks surrounding each of these pitchers that each had their own struggles in 2011 so the Twins should be able to get a decent deal for any of these men. Overall, the Twins need a healthy arm who can be reliable throughout the entirety of the 2012 campaign.

Here is a look at each of these pitchers and what could be expected of them if they were to join the starting staff of the Twins.

Joel Pineiro - RHP- 2011 team: Angels
Stat summary: W-L (7-7), 5.13 ERA, 145.2 IP, 1.510 WHIP, 62 K, 38 BB
The 33-year old righty is coming off a rough season for the Angels in which he posted a high ERA and one of the worst strikeout to walk ratios of his career. Over the last three seasons, he has averaged 177 innings pitched with a 4.06 ERA, a 1.277 WHIP and only 33 walks a season. This seems to fit the mold of many of the other pitchers scheduled to be part of the Twins rotation for 2012. Even coming off of the sub-par season, the good news for Pineiro is the fact that he has shown the ability to bounce back from previous bad seasons. Both of the other seasons he posted a negative WAR, he came back the next year to turn it into a positive WAR. He is only two seasons removed from a season in which he pitched over 200 innings and the 2010 season saw the second highest WAR of his career. The Twins would be crossing their fingers that Pineiro's trend of bounce back seasons would continue.

Jeff Francis - LHP - 2011 team: Royals
Stat summary: W-L (6-16), 4.82 ERA, 183.0 IP, 1.437 WHIP, 91 K, 39 BB
Francis missed all of the 2009 season as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. The former 9th overall pick in the 2002 draft will turn 31 next month and could be an intriguing option for a team looking for another part for their starting rotation. The former 17-game winner showed his elbow had the ability to pitch a decent amount of innings in 2011 and don't let the win-loss record fool you about Francis. Last season was the third best WAR of his career and that number would have placed him third out of the Twins starters behind Scott Baker and Carl Pavano. The switch from Kauffman Stadium to Target Field could help his numbers and it would be a big upgrade over Coors Field, where he started his career.  In both of 2011 starts at Target Field, he pitched at least seven innings. But he did give up a home run to Drew Butera so that has to be a strike against him. His age is young enough and he is far enough removed from his elbow surgery that he could be due for a big season in 2012.

Jon Garland - RHP - 2011 team: Dodgers
Stat summary: W-L (1-5), 4.33 ERA, 54.0 IP, 1.389 WHIP, 28 K, 20 BB
The Twins had plenty of health issues in 2011 so adding another health concern can't be too high on their list. Fans of the Twins will be familiar with Garland's name from the time he spent coming through the White Sox organization. He had back-to-back 18-win seasons in the mid-2000's and last season was the first year he did not reach double digits in wins since 2001. The problem could be how far he fell in 2011. His 54.0 innings pitched for last year were not good. But in the previous nine campaigns, he reached at least 190 innings pitched in every season. Garland did not pitch in a game after June 1st and that means that out of the three players mentioned here he would be the biggest risk. The benefit of a higher risk player is the chance he will be a cheaper option that could produce positive results on the field. In Garland's case, the risk might be too high and the Twins might be looking in a different direction.

The front office of the Twins organization has made it very clear that the team is pushing hard to sign a free agent starting pitcher to fit into the rotation for next season. The Twins should look at Francis and Pineiro first and then they can turn their attention to other arms if these players are both looking for bigger contracts. Garland seems to fit the mold of previous Terry Ryan signings like Sidney Ponson. Is there much left for him to offer as a starter? If the price isn't right for one of these discount starters, the team could look to add another piece in the mix for the bullpen. This would leave a handful of less than outstanding options that are currently on the roster to fill-in the final spot in the starting rotation.

Pitching can be the savior to a season and health is going to play a big part in the Twins turnaround next year. One free agent decision could play a big role in how the Twins start the 2012 season. 

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