In my previous post, I looked at the offense and wondered how in the world this team won 87 games. With such an unbalanced lineup, the Twins needed either a lot of luck, a soft schedule, or fantastic pitching performances to come back from a seven-game deficit and capture the division crown. And looking at the pitching staff, it appears they benefitted from a little of all three.
The starters pitched pretty well through the month of September, when the team was fighting for a playoff spot:
Pavano was a good pickup for the Twins, essentially filling in for the injured Kevin Slowey and keeping the struggling Anthony Swarzak out of the rotation. And in case you missed it, he also pitched a great game against a tough lineup in game 3 of the ALDS. I wouldn't mind too much if the Twins brought Pavano back next year, depending (of course) on how much money he wants. The Twins shouldn't commit more than 2 years and $12 million given his age, his injury history, and the fact that he isn't actually that good. Otherwise, they should just take those draft picks and run.
Rookie Brian Duensing was also a pleasant surprise, though I don't think he's quite as good as his Santana-esque ERA indicates. His K/BB ratio is mediocre at best, and his 4.97 xFIP pretty much screams "replacement-level". The Dunce does have good enough stuff to make a solid left-handed starter, however, and hopefully that will discourage the Twins from signing Jarrod Washburn.
I think it's also worth noting that Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn put up almost exactly the same numbers they did last year. Scotty went 11-4 with a 3.45 ERA, 3.36 K/BB ratio, 4.25 xFIP and 4.33 tRA in 2008, compared to 15-9 with a 4.37 ERA, 3.38 K/BB ratio, 4.46 xFIP, and 4.39 tRA this season. Had he not gotten off to such a horrible start (a 9.15 ERA and eight home runs in his first four appearances), Baker would probably have an ERA closer to the 3.45 he put up last year. Blackbeard went 11-11 with a 4.05 ERA, 2.46 K/BB ratio, 4.55 xFIP, and 4.68 tRA in 2008, and went 11-11 with a 4.03 ERA, 2.39 K/BB ratio, 4.78 xFIP, and 4.95 tRA this year. Why bring all this up? Well, because it means that this is about as good as these guys are going to get. And that isn't a bad thing at all; they're both at least solid major-league starters under team control for the next few years (Baker's contract in particular is starting to look like a bargain). It's just that anyone who expects these two to pitch like aces on a consistent basis is going to be disappointed, they're just not that good.
The bullpen wasn't half-bad, either:
Again, pretty solid performances from some surprising sources. Jon Rauch and Ron Mahay turned out to be pretty good pickups as well, solidifying what had been a shaky bullpen before the All-Star break. Rauch will be back next year, and it might not hurt to bring Mahay back, either. I wasn't exactly thrilled when the Twins acquired Mahay, but he's been an effective LOOGY and it is nice to have another lefty in the 'pen. Bobby Keppel and Jesse Crain have been effective in low-leverage situations. Jose Mijares probably isn't as shaky as he's been since that unfortunate incident in Detroit, but he probably wasn't as good as his 2.07 ERA suggested, either.
Joe Nathan's performance in September was a little disappointing (he also surrendered four home runs), but hardly anything worthy of the "cowardly closer" nickname. Unfortunately, after his horrendous performance in the ALDS (although, to be fair, he certainly wasn't the only closer to shit the bed in the playoffs), the "Trade Joe Nathan" bandwagon has been in full force. Now, I don't think trading Twitchy in and of itself is a bad idea. He will be 36 years old next year and he is starting to show signs of possible decline. He's also going to get paid $11.25 million a year over the next couple of years, which is obviously a lot of money for a relief pitcher, even one of the best in baseball. The Twins really need to upgrade the left side of the infield and could always use more pitching help, so it wouldn't hurt to at least gauge interest in him.
Having said all that, Twitchy is still an elite closer and his possible replacements don't exactly fill me with much confidence. Matt Guerrier and Jose Mijares have been solid, but I wouldn't trust either one to close out games (Guerrier in particular pitches to contact, which scares me to death when there are runners on base and less than two outs). I want to see if Pat Neshek can even pitch effectively after Tommy John surgery before handing him the job. Anthony Slama and Rob Delaney are both heralded as closers-of-the-future, but neither one has thrown a single pitch in the major leagues yet. If the Twins are absolutely blown away with an offer for Nathan, then by all means, they need to pull the trigger. No player should be considered untouchable if the price is right, especially a reliever. But dumping the best reliever in the bullpen just to provide salary relief is something an organization in the process of rebuilding should do. It doesn't make much sense for a team that hopes to contend for another division title next year.
Besides, there is one slight problem with trading Nathan simply to dump salary: Joe Mauer's contract extension. Mauer has often stated that he isn't interested in being the highest-paid player in baseball; more than anything, he wants to win a championship and he wants assurance that the front office is committed to winning a championship before signing with anyone. It would be difficult to convince him that this is the case if the Twins were to trade Twitchy without getting anything of value in return (Seriously, remember the kerfluffle over the Luis Castillo trade? The fallout from something like this would be even worse).