MINNEAPOLIS -- Let's begin by agreeing on one fundamental point: Pitching is the No. 1 priority. After three consecutive 90-loss seasons, the Twins clearly have weaknesses in several areas, but as manager Ron Gardenhire says, "It all starts with your pitching. If we can get pitchers to get us to the second half of the game, we can figure out a way to maybe score a run here and there. But you have to pitch."
OK, good. Now, consider a hypothetical: Say Twins General Manager Terry Ryan shares that concern, and makes it his guiding principal going into the offseason. Let's imagine he makes a half-dozen roster moves during the winter, some bold and some cautious, some popular and some disliked, some for immediate help and some for long-term improvement, but every one of them designed to strengthen Minnesota's pitching staff.
And let's picture every one of those moves working out reasonably well, albeit modestly, but within rough expectations. There are no lightning-strike breakthroughs such as Johan Santana, not even any acquisitions that get much widespread positive attention. But no move is an unqualified disaster, either.
A track record like that would have to lead to a notable improvement, wouldn't it? The Twins would undoubtedly be better, right?
See, this is why being a general manager is so difficult -- because that "hypothetical" is exactly what Ryan accomplished last winter. The offseason's six major-league moves -- two trades, two free-agent signings, a waiver claim and a Rule 5 selection -- brought seven new arms to Minnesota (while subtracting two talented center fielders), and only one, Vance Worley, could be said to have drastically underachieved, based on the team's expectations. But Worley wasn't the Twins' main target of his transaction, either.
All that activity, and what did the Twins end up with? A decent, if overworked, bullpen -- and the worst starting rotation in the game. At a time when strikeouts are exploding around the majors, Twins starters this year whiffed fewer batters than in any non-strike season in franchise history. (They struck out fewer than their bullpen, actually, in 300 more innings.) And all those extra balls in play are doing damage, because Twins starters allowed opposing hitters to bat a collective .305 this year -- every hitter is Victor Martinez, basically -- which is also the worst Minnesota has ever seen.
"We're no different than any organization: We need pitching help," Gardenhire said, as though making an SOS appeal. "To sit here and say, 'We're OK with what we have' ... no. No, we're not. Because our pitching hasn't been very good, starting-wise."
Eleven different pitchers have started games for the Twins in 2013, and only Samuel Deduno (3.83 in 18 starts) and Andrew Albers (3.98 in nine starts) own ERAs below 4.00. Only Kevin Correia (4.29) joins them if the standard is below 5.00.
The Twins are also the first team in 30 years, since the 1983 Royals, where no pitcher ever struck out more than seven batters in a game.
BUILDING WITH URGENCY
Safe to say, Gardenhire wants a restructured rotation in 2014, and Ryan seems to want to deliver one.
"We certainly know we have to address the pitching staff," Ryan said. "We've had several extensive discussions about how to do it."
There's an urgency about that project now, however, a critical timeline. The Twins have some of the best hitting prospects in baseball rising through their farm system, and within two to three years, they hope to have a revamped and re-energized lineup. But Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano can't win championships with a rag-tag pitching staff.
Trouble is, pitching was in short supply back when the game had 16 teams and starters were expected to throw 250 or more innings a season. Today there are 30 teams, and no pitcher in the majors will eclipse 240 innings this year.
"There's going to be a lot of competition for quality, there always is. But we'll be in the mix," Ryan said of the free-agent market for pitchers. "We pursued a bunch of free-agent pitchers last year, and there was a number of them we didn't get, for whatever reason."
He landed Correia and Mike Pelfrey, the latter of whom will repeat free agency this fall after a frustrating season of occasional effectiveness and some terrible setbacks.
There are some intriguing free agents available this winter, though the best ones will cost more than the Twins ever have spent on signing a player from another organization. Ervin Santana, for instance, is only 30 and posted a 3.16 ERA for the Royals in 205 innings, a high point in an up-and-down career. Soon-to-be-30 Matt Garza, who came up through the Twins system, has won 10 games four times since being traded away. Scott Feldman is also only 30 and owns a 4.13 ERA over the past three seasons with fewer than one homer per nine innings, despite playing in home-run bandboxes for the Rangers, Cubs and Orioles. Phil Hughes is 27, and while his ERA has been above 5.00 in two of his past three seasons, he has a career 4.10 ERA away from Yankee Stadium.
Ryan could also swing a trade, similar to those he pulled off last winter to bring Alex Meyer and Trevor May, two prospects the organization hopes form the top of the rotation starting in 2016 or so. But the major league roster has few obvious trade chips this time, and trading minor-league prospects is something the Twins always are loathe to do.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS
That leaves the Twins' own farm system as a primary provider of pitching -- and the short-term outlook isn't good.
"Do we have arms ready to step in next year and make this rotation? No," Gardenhire said bluntly. "We've got candidates, lots of candidates, but are they the guys who are going to turn you around? Are they ready to do that? I don't think so. ... If they were ready, they'd have come up here already."
He's probably right about that, considering that aside from Pelfrey and Correia, every Twins starting pitcher this season also pitched for Class AAA Rochester at some point. The Twins have scoured their own system for major league-ready talent, have tried nearly everyone, but have found nobody who throws hard, strikes batters out and is consistent and reliable.
That's not true in the lower minors, where rookie-level Elizabethton had the best staff in the Appalachian League, where Cedar Rapids was teeming with promising arms, where fourth overall pick Kohl Stewart will begin his pro career in earnest next spring.
But for 2014? Cross your fingers.
Kyle Gibson will be given another shot, this time with more appropriate expectations, after his 10-start tryout flamed out with a 6.53 ERA.
"The experience I got, even though there was quite a bit of failure, it's something I can learn from," Gibson, the Twins' No. 1 pick in 2008, said gamely. "Attacking is one thing that's been a struggle for me, just getting strike one and strike two as fast as possible. Getting ahead of hitters and controlling at-bats."
Deduno is all but certain to be projected as a starter, now that the shoulder ache that ruined his last couple of starts before surgery has been taken care of in arthroscopic surgery. He's the one true strikeout pitcher the Twins possess in the rotation, though it's combined with some wildness.
Anthony Swarzak has had a terrific season as the Twins' long reliever and likely will get another look. His darkhorse candidacy has a notable supporter. Swarzak "is getting overlooked a lot," catcher Joe Mauer said.
"The last couple of years, he comes in there and does a great job, attacking hitters and giving us a chance to win."
After that, however, the Twins must trust that the usual suspects find a new pitch, develop better control or create better velocity. The status quo isn't good enough for pitchers such as Scott Diamond, Pedro Hernandez and Liam Hendriks. Or Worley, the Twins' Opening Day starter, who washed out with a 7.21 ERA.
"It's a building process," Gardenhire said. "It's trying to find a few more good arms to get us through our system. We've got good arms, but they're not ready yet. We have to find more arms, more guys to compete -- guys who can be top-of-the-line starters, not just everyday Joes."
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