The 2011 season hangs over everything the Twins do. Every offseason move is analyzed with an eye looking back at 2011. As the players gather for spring training, the 2011 campaign hangs around like the stench of rotten garbage on a warm summer day. It’s just lingering. Ignore the 2011 season completely and excitement for this team would be high. If the Twins simply went from 2010 to 2012, with no 2011 in between, the media would most likely be favoring them as division winners. There’s no ignoring what we witnessed in 2011, though, especially when it comes to pitchers.
So where does that leave the team as they prepare for 2012? More importantly, where does that leave a pitching staff that remained largely unchanged from last year to this year? One would hope the injury bug would not be rearing its ugly head as often again, both amongst the pitchers and across the entire team. But even with a healthy staff through 2012, the question is still whether these guys can get it done. The rotation is littered with potential and I-Hope-He-Breaks-Out-This-Year. There comes a time, though, when potential is simply a mirage and a starter is who he is. This sentiment couldn’t be more true with the likes of Liriano and Baker.
Liriano has struggled mightily since undergoing Tommy John surgery after his tremendous 2006 breakout performance. He has shined in moments, but he’s never come close to his old form. His fastball has lost some zip, which makes the change-up less dominant and the bottom doesn’t drop out of his slider quite like it used to. This isn’t news to anyone. There’s talk of Liriano’s improved mechanics, but at the end of the day, this talk is just more of the same. This goes for Baker too. While he was plagued with injuries last season, he has never quite lived up to the Big Spot Scott nickname he was prematurely given. Everyone is hoping he finally develops into that pitcher we’ve seen flashes of, but eventually hope becomes misleading.
Then there’s some of the younger guys that have now had some experience. After a promising finish to the 2010 season, Brian Duensing struggled last season. While he hopes to change course in 2012, he will likely be fighting with a finally healthy Nick Blackburn for the final rotation spot. Blackburn claims he’s not going to hold anything back this season and let the chips fall where they may. As it turns out, his chips may land him in the bullpen, since veteran leader Carl Pavano and newly acquired Jason Marquis will probably be filling out the five-man rotation for stability. In the end, though, the questions on all of these pitchers still loom large. Pavano is the only starter that we know clearly what we’re going to get from him this season.
The clarity in the bullpen isn’t much better either. In fact, it’s like a smoke screen when you walk in there. The Twins dumped Joe Nathan’s hefty asking price for the likes of Matt Capps at closer. The Twins have publicly admitted to overworking Capps last season. Yet despite Capps’ desire to redeem himself after letting “people down” in 2011, questions loom large over his ability to close out games. Then there’s the question of who will hand Capps the ball before the 9th. The addition of Joel Zumaya should help in the 8th inning, but it’s unclear whether he still has the pop in his fastball that he needs to be effective. This doesn’t even get into the whole lot of question marks for the middle relievers. It’s is a lot of pressure to put on a bullpen that saw significant work last season due to the starting rotation’s inability to get deep into games.
This is what we’ve come to expect as we enter the 2012 season, however. The uncertainty hangs as heavily over everyday players as it does the pitching staff. Twins management think they had a good thing that failed miserably in 2011 due to injuries, poor performance, and sliding away from fundamentals. Maybe they’re right. Maybe it’s simple fixes with the pitchers. The starting rotation did have an awful habit of getting behind in the count last year. They were constantly pitching defensively and letting the hitters dictate the the at bat. That’s something that doesn’t tend to lead to success on the mound, but it’s something that should be fixable entering into this season. For the sake of all of us Twins fans, let’s hope management is right, or it could be another long season.