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Is Nick Blackburn Undervalued?

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One couldn't be blamed for writing off Nick Blackburn as an afterthought in the Twins' 2012 starting pitching equation.

After all, he's been pretty bad over the past two seasons. In fact, "pretty bad" might be an understatement he's been one of baseball's most hittable pitchers, prone to stretches of mind-numbingly horrible performance. His once-premier walk rate has deteriorated into mediocrity, leaving him with little in the way of strengths to fall back on.

So it's easy to forget the fact that, prior to 2010, Blackburn was a pretty dang valuable pitcher. After emerging as a legitimate prospect in 2007, he became a staple in the Twins' rotation, hurling around 200 innings with an above-average ERA in both 2008 and 2009.

After that '09 campaign, the Twins signed Blackburn to a four-year extension worth $14 million. It was a totally unnecessary move that has unsurprisingly backfired, but there was valid reason for the club's faith in the right-hander. Over that two-year stretch, Blackburn was indisputably their most reliable starting pitcher.

Yes, he has been mostly a mess over the past two seasons, and there's a temptation to profile those struggles as symptomatic of his non-dominant, pitch-to-contact approach. But that was the same style he employed while serving as a steady boon amidst the rotation in his first two seasons.

Indeed, his troubles in 2010 and 2011 have very likely stemmed from health issues more than anything else. And while that's not reason to excuse them, it's a fact that should provide fans with hope that he can return to form if his latest surgery takes.

In his first year at Target Field, Blackburn finished with a 5.42 ERA and career-low 3.8 K/9 rate over 161 innings. Ugly numbers, to be sure, but after the season it was revealed that he had (perhaps foolishly) been pitching through elbow discomfort for much of the year. Shortly after the Twins were ousted from the playoffs, he underwent minor surgery on the elbow.

Early on in 2011, Blackburn appeared to have returned to form. Over the first three months of the season, he looked as good as ever, turning in a 3.64 ERA over 101 innings. He was on pace for another solid 200-inning campaign, but things quickly derailed around the halfway point; after the start of July, Blackburn made only 10 more starts, posting a 6.32 ERA over 47 innings while allowing 70 hits and 26 walks.

The sagging control stood out as the most worrisome red flag for the righty, who even during his rough spells had traditionally thrown the ball over the plate. After issuing four walks while recording just four outs against the Yankees on August 21st, Blackburn was pulled and shut down for the season. He'd later be diagnosed with an entrapped nerve in his forearm, for which he underwent surgery in late September.

This procedure was more serious than the one in 2010, as it left Blackburn in a splint for six weeks, but he's expected to be ready for spring training. He'll be one of several question marks among the club's starting pitching crop this year, but it's important to bear in mind that when he's been healthy, Blackburn has been a legitimate asset to the rotation.

His $4.75 million salary guaranteed as the result of that misguided extension inked two years ago currently looks like a liability. But it's entirely possible that by the end of the season, it'll look like a solid bargain.

Like with so many other Twins players this year, it will all come down to health.
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