The Twins started just seven pitchers all of last season, despite having serious injury issues throughout the year. All seven pitched at least 10 starts and five of the seven will return this year.
That consistency is a great change from the last few years, when the Twins were almost certainly trying to fit someone like Sydney Ponson on the New York Yankees in the rotation, when he simply did not fit.
The bullpen doesn't have nearly the same continuity. The major piece is still there, but there are serious questions to be answered about the preparedness of some of the projected relievers.
Two major battles remain, one in long relief, the other in short relief. Neither will be decided until the absolute last moment, but a few factors are in play which makes projecting even those positions reasonably safe.
The staff is made up of 12 pitchers, but this number isn't set. Joe Mauer's injury makes carrying 13 pitchers seem almost impossible, but if he were to come back in time for Opening Day, 13 isn't out of the question.
In all likelihood, even if Mauer is healthy, the Twins will go with an 11-12-man staff. If they choose to drop one, Jose Mijares is the bubble man as things stand now.
Scott Baker (R)
Baker will lead the Twins out to start the 2009 season, taking over the role Livan Hernandez had last season. While Baker has struggled this spring, he has improved over his last few outings and seems to know what pieces of his game is causing him problems.
He has two weeks to iron out things like placement of his off-speed pitches and overall pitch selection before opening day. Even if it takes him a few more starts to get back into the rhythm of things, Baker will certainly be better than Hernandez was last year.
Francisco Liriano (L)
This year will be a defining year for Liriano, as he enters his second season since he had Tommy John surgery. Popular logic suggests that this will be the season which will show what Liriano is capable of, which is good, because currently, no baseline exists.
In 2006, he was nothing short of electric before going down with his injury. He missed all of 2007 doing rehab, and 2008 was a mixed bag.
Liriano is still refining his change-up to make up for his decreased use of his slider, which could make for some interesting outings in 2009.
Still, given his talent, Liriano will post more good results than bad and if he can learn to use his slider sparingly, but effectively, he could be in the mix for the Cy Young Award at the end of the season.
Kevin Slowey (R)
I won't rehash the arguments I made extolling Kevin Slowey, since I've already covered most of it. Baseball Prospectus has Slowey slotted in as the Twins' highest VORP pitcher, but that may be dependent on Liriano's ability to adapt to hit new mechanics.
Slowey should be very good this year, but there will still be a few hiccups along the way. As good as he is now, his greatness may be a year off yet.
Nick Blackburn (R)
Blackburn is the elder statesman of the staff, along with Baker, in terms of age, but has the same experience level as Kevin Slowey. Blackburn was unimpressive in most of his starts but lead the team in both starts and quality starts.
Despite that, Blackburn's 11 losses were also tied for a team high. Of pitchers who threw at least 180 innings, Blackburn got the seventh worst run support in baseball. Assuming that support evens out, Blackburn's record should be better this year than it was last year.
Glen Perkins (L)
On the other side of the coin is Glen Perkins. Perkins' 12-4 record flattered him incredibly, considering his 4.41 ERA was the worst of any starter that finished the season with the team. His run support was second best in baseball of starters with 140 innings pitched or more.
Perkins has had a good spring, but he truly is the Twins' fifth best starter. He isn't in danger of losing his spot in the rotation, but especially if Philip Humber makes the team, he cannot afford to hit the skids once the season.
Philip Humber (R)
Humber's first day in camp was rocky, but he's improved substantially since then. Still, his spot is the least safe of anyone in camp, pitcher or position player. Humber has the stuff to not only make the team, but to thrive.
He could be incredibly valuable as a long-reliever and emergency starter.
There is no guarantee Humber will win this job, but he does have a leg up. Humber is out of options and would likely get picked up if he went on waivers. R.A. Dickey, the man he is battling against, is on a minor league contract.
The Twins, if forced to choose, will take Humber on an extended audition rather than lose him. If he can't hack it, the kid hits waivers, Dickey comes up and all that's lost is time...and potentially a few games if Gardy lets Humber have too long a leash.
Matt Guerrier (R)
Of all the players virtually promised a job, Guerrier is the one who is least deserving of his status. Based on what Guerrier showed at the end of last season and so far in camp, the Twins should seriously consider moving Brian Duensing into long relief or taking both Dickey and Humber.
It isn't going to happen, though, so what can Guerrier bring to the team.
Guerrier broke down last season from overuse. But 76 appearances, a career high, don't tell the full story. Jesse Crain was ineffective at best, Boof Bonser was the same. Pat Neshek went down early in the season, and it was clear that only late in the season did Gardy trust mid-season acquisition Craig Breslow.
Guerrier saw every difficult non-save situation the team had, and that, as much as the physical strain is what wore Guerrier down. If Guerrier can be used in rotation with the rest of the relievers instead of as a savior, he's likely to improve on last season's collapse.
Ironically, the less Guerrier sees the mound this season, the more effective he'll be.
Luis Ayala (R)
Ayala hasn't done much to earn a job, having missed much of the spring playing for Team Mexico in the World Baseball Classic, but he also hasn't done much to lose the job he already has.
Ayala hasn't shown anything one way or another to make the Twins gamble in signing him anything different than that: A gamble. Still, he'll see plenty of game action over the next two weeks and will, without a doubt, make the team.
Craig Breslow (L)
Breslow is another player I am quite high on heading into this season. With a very successful half-season under his belt, hopefully he has earned the trust of Ron Gardenhire. Breslow will be exceptionally important to the Twins if Jose Mijares continues to waiver in his effectiveness, and even if he doesn't.
Breslow could be a huge asset to the Twins, but if he is left on the bench in many of the high pressure situations, the Twins will come to regret it.
Jesse Crain (R)
Crain has pitched surprisingly well this spring, but only time will tell if this season will be a turning point for him. Like Liriano, Crain is in his second year off of Tommy John surgery, which makes this season important for him as well.
Unlike Liriano, Crain's issue isn't with a slider, but with his overall mechanics, which have ostensibly been fixed at this point. Crain's problem has always been that he relies heavily on a mediocre fastball. The best thing he can do as he gets his velocity back is learn to mix in an off-speed pitch or two.
Here I will admit one of two biases against Twins' players I have: I wish Jesse Crain was not on this team. He holds little value in my estimation, so I find it hard to project how he will do. Objectively, there is a chance Crain remakes himself as an effective player.
Subjectively, I don't see it happening.
Jose Mijares (L)
Given the rhetoric coming out of the Twins' front office regarding Mijares, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that he's lasted this long in camp. Mijares finally put together a decent outing earlier this week, the first in a while, yet he's gotten nothing but support from Gardy.
Brian Duensing is the candidate to replace Mijares if he can't string a few good appearances together, despite being a starter by trade. He's already appeared in a few games with great effectiveness.
Mijares' talent is not in question here, just his mental state, so a drop in AAA wouldn't be the end of the world. He even has an option to left to burn, so losing him on waivers isn't an issue.
Still, the Twins may be better off if Mijares can get his act together over the next two weeks and bring his considerable skill north with the rest of the team.
Joe Nathan (R)
If there is any sure thing on this team and specifically on this pitching staff, it is here. Joe Nathan has been as consistent over the last few seasons as any closer in baseball; he is the the adhesive that keeps the bullpen together.
An injury to Joe Nathan would probably damage this team more than nearly anyone else, save maybe a long term injury to Joe Mauer or Justin Morneau. Psychologically, cutting the game down to eight innings must give the team a huge boost and the loss of that security would be similarly disheartening.
The shoulder injury he suffered in the days before the World Baseball Classic seems to have passed. So there is nothing to be concerned about heading into the season. Nathan may have a bit of a patchwork crew in front of him, but he should be as good as ever at the end.
Nathan made the All-Star game the past three years.
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