Position Battle: Fifth Starter
by, 02-21-2014 at 11:12 AM (302 Views)
A year ago, Vance Worley came to camp and impressed coaches enough to earn an Opening Day assignment. The right-hander carried hefty expectations, having been acquired as one of the main pieces in a trade that sent Ben Revere to Philadelphia and left the Twins without a clear center fielder (an quandary that, as Seth discussed yesterday, still persists).
This year, Worley arrives in Ft. Myers under a much different set of circumstances. Following a disastrous first year in Minnesota, he's already fighting for his job, facing the possibility of winding up in the bullpen or on the waiver wire.
Worley is just one of several hurlers who will need to step up and prove himself this spring in order to earn another crack at the Twins' rotation, and that is very much by design.
The Twins hoped that Worley would join up with Scott Diamond, the only holdover from a mostly wretched 2013 starting corps, to provide stability at the front end of the rotation. In 2012, both Worley and Diamond had achieved strong results, but last year their contact-heavy ways came to a head and the result was an endless barrage of hits as the two young hurlers combined to allow 231 hits in 179 innings.
Both pitchers are still 27 or below, with MLB success not so far off in the rear view mirror, and it seems that both struggled last season at least in part due to physical limitations that should be lessened this time around. As you may recall, both pitchers were coming off supposedly "minor" elbow procedures in the previous offseason, and during the summer Worley -- who appeared somewhat heavy and sluggish to begin with -- battled shoulder soreness that ultimately led to his season being cut short in July.
Worley's transformed physique has been an early talking point in Ft. Myers this month, as the righty reportedly showed up about 25 pounds slimmer than he did a year ago. He's more than ready to put last year behind him.
Diamond has similar plans, and will be going head-to-head with Worley to lock up the final remaining spot in Minnesota's rotation. They'll both need to get past Samuel Deduno, who clearly outperformed them in 2013 but now may face physical limitations of his own.
All three are intriguing to a certain degree, and all three are out of options, so this roster battle figures to rank as the most prominent in camp. Who's going to come out on top, and why? Let's dig in.
Why Worley Will Win
As mentioned before, the Twins made a significant investment in Worley and clearly viewed him pretty highly when they billed him as their No. 1 starter to open the season last year. He certainly lost a great deal of his luster with one of the most brutal pitching performances of any MLB starter, posting a 7.21 ERA and 1.99 WHIP before retreating to Triple-A, but he's still only 26 and if you subtract 2014 from the equation he's got a stronger overall track record than his competitors.
While both Diamond and Deduno were essentially non-prospects who had been overlooked in other organizations and bloomed late as big-league pitchers, Worley reached the majors at age 22 and put up a 3.50 ERA, 1.35 WHIP and 238/97 K/BB ratio over 277 innings in his first three seasons with Philadelphia. Those are quality numbers that gave every indication Worley could at least emerge as a decent mid-rotation starter in the American League.
That upside remains, even if local fans saw nothing resembling it last season. The fact that he has apparently arrived this year in better shape and with greater resolve has to be viewed as an encouraging sign. Of course, he'll have a lot of work to do over the next six weeks in order to reenter the team's good graces.
Why Diamond Will Win
In 2012, Diamond established himself with a breakout season in which he was successful in many key areas that the Twins emphasize -- namely, he threw strikes (1.6 BB/9 rate) and kept the ball down (53 percent grounder rate and 17 homers in 173 innings). Because he conformed to the club's mold so well, it was no surprise that he was named as the only incumbent with a guaranteed spot in the 2013 unit.
It's also no surprise that he was given an extended leash despite his inability to come close to replicating those results. The lefty delivered quality starts in four of his first five turns, and then everything fell apart. He coughed up six earned runs in back-to-back starts in mid-May and never really rebounded.
His overall numbers in 2013 were bad, but when you take out his first five outings they are truly eye-popping: in 101 innings over his final 19 starts, Diamond went 5-14 with a 6.13 ERA, .881 opponents' OPS, 19 homers allowed and a 37/33 K/BB ratio. The aspects of his game that ingratiated him to the coaching staff in the previous season were nowhere to be found.
Now, sandwiched between his ugly results in 2011 and 2013, Diamond's best season looks like an outlier. Still, the skills he displayed in 2012 won't be forgotten, and now that he's gone through a normal offseason with no surgery, the Twins will be eager to see if he can bring those back to the table, especially as the only left-handed candidate for a rotation spot.
If he falters in exhibition play, Ron Gardenhire may opt to keep him around as a secondary lefty specialist in the bullpen behind Brian Duensing rather than expose him to waivers.
Why Deduno Will Win
Relative to the other two contenders in this race, Deduno was phenomenal last season. In 18 starts, he posted a 3.83 ERA while coughing up just seven homers in 108 innings. But whereas Diamond's successful 2012 campaign followed the Twins' blueprint to a tee, Deduno's approach fell on the opposite end of the spectrum; rather than hitting spots with precision, the Dominican relied on his unpredictable scattershot fastball and kept batters guessing along with his own catchers.
The result was very little solid contact but also many stretches of poor command that led to extended innings and outings. With that being said, his control was vastly improved from previous years, suggesting that Rick Anderson was able to break through with the 30-year-old to some extent.
Based on merit, Deduno should be the favorite in this competition, and if all things were equal he probably would be. But he underwent arthroscopic shoulder surgery in September and that might put him behind Worley and Diamond. Deduno has already thrown several bullpens and says he's good to go, but we'll see how sharp he looks when he takes the mound in a game.
The effectively wild right-hander already walked a thin line, so if his pitches are moving a little less, or if his control deteriorates back to 6.0 BB/9 territory, he'll have a tough time coming out on top.
Why To Keep An Eye On Others
As things stand, there's only one rotation spot available and -- barring multiple injuries or total meltdowns -- one of the guys above is essentially guaranteed to end up in it. The Twins simply aren't the type of team to give up on a pitcher with potential value if they don't have to, and they can afford to be patient with youthful candidates such as Kyle Gibson, Alex Meyer and Trevor May.
However, as we all well know, injuries tend to strike in spring training. There's a decent chance that one of the four veterans expected to open in the starting five -- Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes, Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey -- will be unavailable once the start of April rolls around. That would open the door for one of the aforementioned prospects, or another dark-horse contender such as Kris Johnson, Brooks Raley or (my preferred option) Anthony Swarzak.