Friday, June 19, 2015

The Twins $55 Million Dollar Question

The calendar has already passed halfway through June and the 2015 Major League Baseball season is starting to take shape. Nearing the halfway point of the season, teams are starting to categorize themselves as contenders or pretenders. Right now, the Twins land somewhere in the middle, and while they may not be buyers at the trade deadline, they can improve from within. The biggest question though, is what they do with their $55 million dollar man.

Over the winter, the Twins sought to address their lackluster starting pitching. A season ago, the Twins 4.57 team ERA ranked 29, or second to last, in all of Major League Baseball. Generally out of games before they started, Minnesota knew that pitching needed to start giving their offense a chance. In making a splash, the club signed free agent Ervin Santana.

After spending a season with the Atlanta Braves in the National League, Santana was ready to return home to the American League. Having pitched the season before in the AL Central, the Twins were a relative comfort zone for the free agent. His career 4.48 ERA is indicative of a pitcher that can be a difference maker, but someone who still has some questions to answer. For the Twins though, he's a legitimate number two that should provide plenty of value.

Now coming to the end of a 80 game suspension due to performance-enhancing drug use, Santana is nearing the day that he can rejoin the fold. After the Twins jettisoned Jordan Schafer, the club has an open 40 man roster spot for their high dollar pitcher. However, how does the ninth best pitching team in the American League (3.84 team ERA) accommodate him?

It's probably safe to consider both Phil Hughes and Kyle Gibson locks to stay in the rotation. Despite Hughes' struggles in 2015, he's still seen as the staff ace. Hughes 4.79 ERA is dented by his inability to control the longball this season. After giving up just 16 home runs all of last season, he's allowed 15 through June 19.

Gibson has been one of the early season bright spots. Despite a tough outing his last time out, the Twins former first rounder owns a 3.33 ERA and has been one of the American League's best pitchers in the early going. His strikeout and walk numbers virtually match his career lines, and despite his 4.41 FIP (fielding independent pitching), he should be counted on to keep his roll going.

Owning the middle ground is rookie Trevor May. A 4.26 ERA probably doesn't do justice to just how good May has looked at times. Despite a few tougher starts, he's looked every bit a top of the rotation type. His 7.7 K/9 and 1.7 BB/9 are both great, and his 3.16 FIP suggests he should only continue to improve. Whether or not the Twins see him as locked in, the reality is that he should be.

Arguably the toughest to dissect of the group is Mike Pelfrey. Going from a rotation snub, to the bullpen, and back into the rotation, Pelfrey has been the club's best pitcher this season. It's hard to include him as a lock because he seems to make us continually hold our breath, yet suggesting he's middle of the road with his current numbers is also not doing him justice. A 2.97 ERA is going to be tough to sustain while striking out right around four batters a game, but the Twins absolutely have to ride the wave until it crashes.

That leaves recently reinstated starter Tommy Milone. Of the group, Milone is probably the least likely to have success in the bullpen. A soft tossing lefty, Milone absolutely dominated Triple-A after being sent down earlier this year. In his three starts since rejoining the big league club, Milone owns a 2.37 ERA and has allowed opposing hitters just a .236 batting average against him.

In short, the question becomes, where does Ervin Santana fit?

There's absolutely no doubt that the Twins need to find a place for him in their rotation. It's also a great thing that we are having to ask this question, rather than be able to point to three different pitchers that don't belong.

Santana is making the first of what will be three starts for Triple-A Rochester on Saturday. Over the course of the next week and a half, Minnesota will be evaluating their staff as a whole, and trying to answer the big question.

While I don't envy the decision makers in this situation, the reality is that as a whole, the Twins staff still is a bit more quantity than quality. Santana should boost the quality aspect, and the Twins will know the have depth when they need it. I'd look at inserting Santana in the place of Milone, knowing that if and when Pelfrey blows up, you have an option you can immediately turn to.

Regardless of what happens, this is a position the Twins have not found themselves in for at least the past four seasons. Quality pitching had become a thing of the past, but this club, under Paul Molitor and Neil Allen, it turning over a welcomed new leaf.

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