When it was announced that Scott Baker would be out for the season, a collective groan could be heard across Twins Territory. Baker was having his best season to date in 2011 before having a tough, injury-riddled second half, and considering the state of the rest of the 2012 rotation it was easy to view him becoming the team's defacto Ace. If he was healthy, and there was no reason to think he wouldn't be after a full winter off for recovery, his stuff was certainly good enough to carry that designation.
With scar tissue on his flexor pronator tendon on his right elbow, Baker is now out for the year. When we discussed flexor pronator issues in regards to Kyle Gibson and Anthony Slama over at Twinkie Town last year, this phrase came up:
"Both Gibson and Slama have been diagnosed with flexor pronator muscle strains. These muscles are located on the side of the forearm, opposite the thumb, and their job is to protect the elbow by countering torque during the throwing motion. In this situation these muscles have suffered from repetitive stress due to the throwing motion, causing pain during "the late cocking or acceleration phases of throwing". Obviously, recurring issues here can be an issue, leading to bigger problems."
Now, Baker's time out is coming from clearing up scar tissue, which isn't quite as bad but is still debilitating for a pitcher. Scar tissue on the flexor pronator can keep the elbow from reaching full extension. For pitchers, that's an issue.
He'll heal but the bigger issue at stake here is that this is Scott Baker's final season under contract with the Minnesota Twins. His 2013 option is worth $9.25 million, which simply will not be picked up following a season in which Baker won't have thrown a single pitch.
Carl Pavano is a free agent following the season. Francisco Liriano is in his final season under team control and will be without a contract at season's end. Jason Marquis is here on a one-year deal. Adding Baker to that list makes the Minnesota rotation very difficult to predict for next season as only Nick Blackburn will return, in his final year of a four-year, $14 million dollar contract (although he also has an option for 2014).
Apart from Blackburn, who will be in the Minnesota rotation next year?
Liam Hendriks - Barring injuries, which can happen anytime and anywhere as Twins fans now understand, Hendriks will definitely be involved. He makes two.
Anthony Swarzak - We all know he's certainly capable of starting, but the Twins still consider him a long reliever and spot starter. When Marquis joins the rotation on Wednesday, it will be Swarzak who heads back to the bullpen. Still, he'll be in the discussion.
Kyle Gibson - This is probably a best-case scenario, since Gibson is missing all of 2012 as he recovers and rehabs from Tommy John surgery. Even if he is available, the Twins would be smart to limit his innings. If healthy, Gibson is absolutely a yes...with the asterisk for limited time. If he's not ready to start the season, Minnesota could see him start to contribute later in the year.
Brian Duensing - The Twins just shifted him into a full-time relief role, and went right to Hendriks and Swarzak when they needed spot starters. If the front office feels they have to have a lefty and there are no other options, then maybe he gets a look. But it doens't seem likely right now.
Baker & Liriano - It's worth considering that the Twins could bring one (or both) of these pitchers back, at the right price. While Liriano's 2012 destiny is yet to be written, if Minnesota can mitigate the financial risk in the terms of the contract there's the chance they get Baker at a discount. I'm not suggesting they give him a multi-year contract, but he has to be an option. With Liriano, it will largely depend on how well he and the Twins do this season.
Pavano & Marquis - Would either of these two return? The Twins like their "veteran leadership", but the peripherals for both players insist they're not as strong as some of the pitchers below.
According to Cots Contracts, the Twins have just $64.4 million committed towards their 2013 payroll. Drew Butera could be arbitration eligible for the first time, and would be a likely non-tender as a result. Also eligible for arbitration would be Brian Duensing (first time) and Alexi Casilla (third and final time). Suffice it to say that the Twins should still have $25 million to work with in free agency, if not more (based on another $100 million payroll). Who are the top starting pitchers available? Here are ten to browse through, along with their age in 2013.
Edwin Jackson (29) - Many Twins fans wanted the front office to target Jackson last winter, but it wasn't a viable target for any number of reasons. But if the Twins feel like they could compete by 2014 or 2015, much less '13, then a multi-year deal at reasonable number isn't out of the question here.
Zack Greinke (28) - If the Twins want an ace, here he is. The money would be there - but would signing Greinke leave enough to ensure the rest of the roster is filled with talent? That's the biggest question here. Well, that and if Greinke would want to pitch in Minnesota.
Cole Hamels (29) - With the Phillies other pitchers not getting any younger, keeping Hamels around will probably be one of their priorities. If they can't work out a new contract, however, then it's an open field. Like both Jackson and Greinke, no doubt some bigger payroll teams will be bidding here, too.
Shaun Marcum (31) - Marcum has a good combination of stuff and control without posting gaudy ace-like numbers that will drive up his demand.
Jonathan Sanchez (30) - On a one-year deal with the Royals, Sanchez gets more swings-and-misses than Marcum but also can struggle with command. A good mid-rotation type who shouldn't come at a very steep price.
Erik Bedard (34) - Bedard's value is going to depend greatly on his performance with the Pirates this season. Pittsburgh landed him on a great contract, so a down season could signal that the end is nigh for the southpaw. But a decent season might earn him one more multi-year contract with somebody.
Colby Lewis (33) - The Twins tried to sign Lewis when he came back from Japan a couple of years go, but the Rangers were the benefactor of his reinvention. Could a front office with a lot of the same personnel still have interest in him? Probably.
Ryan Dempster (36) - With the likely departure of both Pavano and Marquis after this season, Dempster profiles as the "veteran leader" type that the organization likes to have on staff. He's been strong as he's moved through his 30s, so a good year would mean he'd still have value around the league.
Anibal Sanchez (29) - If he ends up duplicating his great 2011 season, he's going to be a very hot commodity. But if he doesn't, interest may not be as high as he might expect. He could be a dark horse type who could give his new team better numbers than a guy like Jackson who could be a more popular choice.
Rich Harden (31) - No, you're right. He's probably not a good bet.
Of course it's impossible to tell, at such an early stage, what the Twins will do with their rotation in 2013. Rest assured that the Minnesota front office is already working on this issue, and that their own blueprints are already in place. They will change over the course of the year, as the future gets closer and becomes less unstable to predict, as will our own understanding of how the team will operate.
This discussion will be continued in six months with a lot of new information. But as it stands now, how would you approach the starting rotation for the coming years?