Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Blackburn shooting for a bounce back season

It seemed no one was safe from the plethora of injuries suffered by Twins players in 2011 as it seemed to hit every part of the roster. From position players to the pitching staff, there was hardly anyone who was safe from the injury bug. One of the players that missed a big chunk of the second half of the year was Nick Blackburn. In the midst of a multi-year contract extension, Blackburn was limited to 148.1 innings and 26 games on the mound.

After averaging 200 innings pitched in 2008 and 2009 with a 4.04 ERA, the Twins locked up the rest of Blackburn's arbitration eligible years by signing him through 2013 with a club option 2014. Since Blackburn was still under team control for multiple seasons, a long-term contract extension seemed a little pre-mature. The Twins wanted to make a commitment to him and the results of this commitment have not been the greatest.

The 2010 campaign was a nightmare for Blackburn as he suffered through inconsistencies on the field and he was even sent back to Rochester at one point in the year. For the months of June and July, Blackburn posted an ERA of over 10.00 and he finished with a record of 1-6 in those months. After his pit stop in Rochester, the numbers did improve slightly to leave hope open for Blackburn entering the 2011 season.

Blackburn started the 2011 season slow out of the gate as he fumbled his way to a 1-4 record in the first month of the year with a 5.14 ERA and a 1.643 WHIP. The month of May would be his best month of the 2011 season as he pitched a season high 42.2 innings. Over the course of the month, he posted a 2.53 ERA with an outstanding 1.102 WHIP. The rest of the season would be a downhill fall before ending up on the disabled list with a right forearm injury.

This leaves the Twins with plenty of questions entering the 2012 season. What can they expect from Blackburn? Can he stay healthy and on the field for the entire season? Is there any way he can get back to pitching the same way he did in 2008 and 2009?

On the FanGraphs.com website there are two player projection estimates for Mr. Blackburn as the 2012 season is about to begin. Bill James has him pitching 162.0 innings to the tune of a 6-12 record over the course of 28 starts. Using the James estimation system, Blackburn would finish with a 5.00 ERA and a 1.51 WHIP during the coming season. The other prediction tool on FanGraphs is from RotoChamp and it aligns pretty closely with the Bill James projection. RotoChamp has Blackburn finishing with a 9-9 record, a 4.44 ERA, and a 1.52 WHIP in 160 innings pitched.

Almost all of the Twins starting rotation will be free agents at the end of the coming season. The only member of the projected starting rotation that has a contract for next season is Blackburn. Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, and Jason Marquis will all need to show the Twins they are worthy of another contract during the 2012 season. Blackburn doesn't have this immediate burden on his shoulders but he could still be looking to the future. Following the 2013 season, the Twins will have a club option on Blackburn for $8 million. The Twins need to see more of the Blackburn from the early part of his career to make that option a little easier to swallow.

The Twins are never going to look at Blackburn as the ace of their staff but he can provide productivity as a fourth or fifth starter. Some of the other pitchers on the staff are looking directly at free agency but Blackburn needs to show the Twins he was worth the investment they made in him a few seasons ago. 2012 should be the year for him to turn the corner and for him to prove his doubters wrong.

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