Keys to 2013: Minnesota Twins

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Starting Pitching Key: Vance Worley

The Twins acquired Worley from the Phillies along with Trevor May for Ben Revere. In 2011, Worley was dominant to the point of making it look easy and acting as if it was easy as the fifth in the Phillies foursome of star starters, caddying for Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. Worley’s attitude appeared to be one of, “Here, hit my supercharged fastball. This big league stuff is a breeze.”

Then in 2012, it wasn’t a breeze and hitters took him up on his offer of hitting his fastball. Relied on as more than a rookie at the back-end of the rotation, he struggled with his command, gave up a lot of hits and had recurring elbow problems. Once the Twins are back to their normal method of doing business with a fundamentally sound defense combined with a big ballpark, Worley could be a big winner. He has to learn to pitch rather than bully his way through. That prehistoric “me young and tough” act can work the first time through the league, but the second time the hitters humble even the cockiest rookies as they did with Worley in 2012.

Relief Pitching Key: Glen Perkins

If I’m going to have a lefty closer, I’d prefer him to be a flamethrower who can blow people away with a moving fastball a la Billy Wagner. Perkins’s fastball reaches the mid-90s and his strikeout numbers have improved since the move to the bullpen, but I wouldn’t classify him as a strikeout pitcher. He’s also vulnerable to the home run ball. To be an effective lefty closer over the full season, he’ll have to have the threat of an inside pitch to righties. That must be established early in the season so it’s known. Once the word’s out that he’s working righties on the inner half, he won’t have to do it as often and risk leaving a hittable fastball out over the plate.

Offensive Key: Justin Morneau

If the Twins had their sights on legitimate contention, the key might be Aaron Hicks, the rookie center fielder. A team’s true key, however, is contingent on their goals. For the 2013 Twins, they’re incorporating youngsters and looking to move past the era in which Morneau was a mid-lineup linchpin and MVP candidate.

A free agent at the end of the season, if Morneau is hitting, his trade value will skyrocket. A significant return on a trade will speed the Twins’ rebuild.

Defensive Key: Pedro Florimon

Florimon will get the first crack at shortstop. The Twins, with their preferred strategy of pitchers who pound the strike zone and trust their defense, need a shortstop to catch the ball and show good range. Trevor Plouffe is the Twins’ third baseman and his range is limited to a step to the left and a step to the right leaving Florimon with more ground to cover and making defensive positioning and strategy important. He’s not much of a bat and if he doesn’t give the Twins what they need defensively, they’d be wise to throw Eduardo Escobar out there and give him a chance since he’s probably their best long-term solution at short anyway which says more about the current state of the Twins than anything else.

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Pitcher Injuries and Hindsight

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What’s the solution when a pitcher gets injured, there’s no specific cause and it’s automatically assumed that it was due to the vague term “workload”?

The Phillies have placed righty Vance Worley on the disabled list with elbow inflammation and the desperate search for a reason is beginning. His MRI has shown no structural damage so it’s not a catastrophic injury—Delaware Online.

How does anyone know the cause? And what were they supposed to do about it?

While pitching at Single A in 2009, Worley threw 153 innings at the age of 21.

With Double A, Triple A and a cup of coffee the big leagues in 2010, Worley threw 171 innings at age 22.

In 2011, Worley began the season in Triple A, logged 50 innings and was called up to the big leagues and added 131 innings to make his total 181.

Is this considered abuse?

The Phillies were conscious of Worley’s pitch counts and took care to make sure he wasn’t pushed too far with a general pitch limit between 100 and 110. In a rotation with Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, there were no expectations for Worley to be the ace of the staff. He was able to fade into the background as the fourth or fifth starter and learn his craft without the team’s hopes riding on him.

A clear case of a pitcher who was abused in his rookie season was Kerry Wood. In 1998, Wood was a sensation with a blazing fastball and knee-buckling curve. He was consistently left in games to throw 120-130 pitches and led the Cubs to the playoffs—1998 Gamelogs. The weight of carrying a mediocre team resulted in Wood tearing an elbow ligament and needing Tommy John surgery in 1999. It doesn’t take research of stick figures or computer simulations to examine Wood’s history and say that the Cubs overdid it and expedited his injury.

Wood was also a pitcher with mid-to-upper-90s fastball and hard curve with a severe elbow snap to get that nasty break. He might’ve—and probably would’ve—gotten hurt eventually anyway.

With the proliferation of pitching expertise inside and outside of baseball expressing their theories—dutifully detailed on blogs and supposedly reputable websites—a reason for an injury is readily available whether it’s accurate or not. Teams like the Yankees are using medical recommendations to regulate innings and pitch counts in an effort to “develop” their pitchers with the results we see in Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Michael Pineda and Jose Campos.

Who really knows?

The logical end to stopping a workload-related injury to a pitcher would be to limit the workload. But how? What’s the limit? And what to do if the pitcher is needed and he’s approaching his limit? Is the team or the individual more important? How’s that judged?

Throwing a baseball is damaging and there are a myriad of factors that go into a pitcher staying healthy or getting hurt. It’s a zero-sum game. It’s become impossible to develop a pitcher without hundreds of eyes with multiple theories, a forum and no accountability for the outsiders as they wait to pounce and self-promote. Retrospect and hindsight are easily transferred to “prove” whatever theory one prefers to use with pitchers. The Giants didn’t hinder their young starters with limits and have one of the best pitcher developmental programs in baseball.

It’s when one gets hurt that we hear post-injury criticism. The problem is there’s no defense for the charges when the charges are based on after-the-fact theories that are more convenient than diagnostic.

The only answer is to let the pitchers pitch and use common sense. They’re going to get hurt. It’s in the job description and that will never, ever change.

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