Ask casual fans of the Minnesota Twins who their best starting pitcher is and they'll probably answer Francisco Liriano.
No surprise here, the dynamic lefty captured imaginations with a dominating 2006 before losing all of 2007 to Tommy John surgery and spending most of 2008 at AAA Rochester.
This, of course, doesn't mean they are wrong. Liriano is a horse, no doubt, but whether he can recapture even part of his 2006 form remains to be seen.
A more nuanced fan may tell you Scott Baker is the Twins best starter. Baker has been named 2009's Opening Day starter, and just signed a long-term deal to stay with the team through last arbitration seasons and the beginning of his free agent period.
Clearly, the Twins believe he is an integral part of their future plans, and if his 2008 stats are any indication of what's to come, they are right.
Baker posted career highs in innings, strikeouts and wins, while posting career lows in ERA and WHIP. Sources within the organization have hinted that Baker's steady progression may not be over and that he may still improve this season.
Even knowing Baker's consistency and Liriano's potential, the Twins best starter is also their youngest: Kevin Slowey.
At age 24, Slowey is the one of the youngest pitchers on the 40-man roster, just a few months older than Sean Henn and Jose Mijares, both relievers.
Last season was his first full season in the majors and while there were rocky stretches, Slowey showed incredible potential.
So why isn't the lanky right-hander getting the kind of press following that other pitchers in this age range are?
The simple answer is that Slowey isn't the exciting type. His fastball sits between 88-92, he throws four good pitches (Fastball, Change, Curve, and Slider), but none of them is in the realm of Liriano's unhittable slider circa 2006.
What Slowey does have is something that no single stat can count: impeccable control.
At the age of 24, Slowey posted an ERA under four, was second on the team with 123 strikeouts, had a WHIP of 1.15, and walked just 24 in over 160 innings.
For reference sake, Slowey and Jesse Crain walked the same number of batters; Slowey threw 100 more innings.
Baseball Prospectus already has Slowey listed as the Twins highest VORP pitcher for 2009, and that assumed he was their fifth starter, when in reality he'll go third behind Baker and Liriano.
Last year was merely the pre-show for Slowey. He started out poorly, found his niche, but then wore out at the end of the season.
In his second full season in the big leagues, there is no reason to believe Slowey will regress, and in fact should show marked improvement, especially if he can reduce his HR/9.
It's too early to tip Slowey as a serious Cy Young candidate, but given the progress he's made in such a short amount of time, it isn't out of the question.
If Slowey makes a few small adjustments to keep the ball down, Liriano continues to fine-tune his change, and Baker makes even an marginal improvement, the Twins will have the best top three starters in the American League.
However, as good as those other two are, the one hitters will worry most about facing is Kevin Slowey.
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