Last year, the rotation was an utter disaster, with Twins starters ranking 26th in the majors in ERA and WHIP. Short outings taxed an already ill-equipped bullpen and frequently put games out of reach before the offense had much of a say.
It's not hard to see why these pitchers struggled so badly. Beyond injuries that hindered performance, the starting corps posted a lower strikeout rate than any other AL club; allowing that much contact in front of a substandard defense led to a league-worst 1,086 hits allowed.
The front office didn't focus much on adding reinforcements during the offseason, signing only one new player who figures to be the fifth starter. Instead, they'll rely on improved health, effectiveness and accountability from the incumbents.
2011 Stats: 222 IP, 9-13, 4.30 ERA, 102/40 K/BB, 1.36 WHIP
While he's technically the team's No. 1 starter since he'll pitch on Opening Day, Pavano hardly fits the profile of a staff ace. At age 36, he is what he is; a veteran strike-thrower with a mature approach and an extremely hittable fastball. The best you can realistically hope for from Pavano is around 200 innings of serviceable performance. That's not without value, but it's also not what you want matching up against the top starters for contending clubs.
2011 Stats: 134.1 IP, 9-10, 5.09 ERA, 112/75 K/BB, 1.49 WHIP
The mercurial left-hander has been alternately dazzling and maddening over the years and is a perennial spring wild card. If he's on his game he completely changes the complexion of the Twins' rotation, providing a legitimate front-end talent to change the pace for a group that generally survives on sleekness rather than stuff. Following an abysmal 2011 campaign, Liriano has shown plenty of positive signs this spring, coming to camp in shape and delivering a 23-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his first 18 innings while showing improved velocity and command. Of course, until the season gets underway, we won't really know which Frankie we're dealing with.
2011 Stats: 148.1 IP, 7-10, 4.49 ERA, 76/54 K/BB, 1.60 WHIP
Last year marked the second consecutive season in which Blackburn pitched well enough early on but battled forearm issues, watched his performance deteriorate as the summer progressed and required arm surgery in the fall. His most recent procedure was more significant, and the hope is that it will finally enable him to return to the level of productivity that made him a solid mid-rotation innings-eater back in 2008 and 2009. Like Liriano, Blackburn is enjoying an excellent spring (1.50 ERA in three starts) and is actually missing more bats
than we're accustomed to seeing. That all bodes well, but the right-hander needs to prove that he can keep his arm intact all year.
2011 Stats: 134.2 IP, 8-6, 3.14 ERA, 123/32 K/BB, 1.17 WHIP
With the rest of the starters scuffling along, Baker enjoyed a career year in 2011, standing out from the contact-heavy staff by averaging 8.2 whiffs per nine. That mark would've ranked him among the league leaders if he had enough innings to qualify, which he of course did not as arm problems limited the righty to 24 frames after the All-Star break. It was the second straight season in which he's been slowed by elbow soreness, and the issue has already reemerged this spring, feeding the belief that he won't be ready for the start of the year. If Baker can't go, it seems likely that either Anthony Swarzak or Liam Hendriks would occupy his spot in the rotation. Those are decent enough fill-ins, capable of Kevin Slowey type production, but either would represent a sizable drop-off from Baker in his element.
2011 Stats: 132 IP, 8-6, 4.43 ERA, 76/43 K/BB, 1.49 WHIP
The lone newcomer in this year's starting pitching equation, Marquis has a track record that screams "mediocre at best." Historically, he hasn't racked up many strikeouts and hasn't limited hits or walks particularly well. He's also spent his entire career in the more pitcher-friendly National League. The nice thing about the 33-year-old hurler is that if he can hang in there and keep his sinker over the plate, he gives the Twins a fourth rotation member (along with Pavano, Liriano and Blackburn) who tends to induce ground balls at a steady clip. Hopefully, this will reduce the number of drives landing in the gaps and over the fence at Target Field. Unfortunately, with Marquis looking beyond shaky in his early spring performances and currently away from the team indefinitely to tend to a serious family matter, he can't be counted on for much at this point.