Friday, December 4, 2009

All-Time Twins Team: The Rotation

Every team needs pitching, and for the All-Time Twins team, we selected a four-man starting rotation as a shout-out to days of yonder. The four pitchers gracing our team are four of the most accomplished starters in Twins' history.

Anchoring the starting rotation is right-hander Bert Blyleven. The Dutchman was a third round draft choice of the Twins in the 1969 MLB Draft and spent just a season-and-a-half in the minor league system before debuting in Minnesota as a teenager in June of 1970. Blyleven looked none out of place in 1970, finishing the season 10-9 with a 3.18 ERA in 25 starts spanning 164.0 innings. He would finish with at least 15 victories in each of the following five seasons, including a tremendous 1973 season in which Blyleven won 20 games for the only time in his career, posted nine shutouts, made the first of two All-Star appearances, threw a staggering 325.0 innings, and completed 25 of his 40 starts. Blyleven was traded to Texas midway through the 1976 season as the Twins were working their way through a decade of mediocrity, and Blyleven also made stops in Pittsburgh (where he won a World Series ring in 1979) and Cleveland.

Traded back to the Twins in 1985, Blyleven was a grizzled veteran but still only 34 years of age. He added experience to a young pitching staff, led by a young Frank Viola. Blyleven won 17 games in each of 1986 and 1987, and led the Twins to the World Series title in '87 with a fine season. He finished 15-12 in 37 starts spanning 267.0 innings, posted a 4.01 ERA, and struck out 196 hitters. He also allowed a MLB-record 46 homers that season. After a disappointing 10-17 season with a 5.43 ERA, Blyleven was traded after the 1988 season to his hometown California Angels and retired three seasons later.

Blyleven's marks in Minnesota include 11 seasons, 149-138 record on some lousy teams, a 3.28 ERA in 345 starts spanning 2,566.2 innings, 141 complete games, 29 shutouts, and 2,035 strikeouts against 674 walks. The debate over Blyleven's Hall of Fame worthiness continues and his credentials are impressive. However, for what he accomplished in Minnesota, Blyleven deserves to anchor the all-time team's starting rotation.

The second spot in the rotation belongs to Jim Kaat. "Kitty" signed and debuted with the Washington Senators and the Twins' inaugural season in Minnesota represented Kaat's first full season in the big leagues. The young lefty finished 9-17 with a 3.90 ERA in 1961, but made 29 starts and threw 200.2 innings as a 22-year-old. Kaat would finish with double-digit wins in each of the following twelve seasons, highlighted by his tremendous 1966 campaign in which Kaat led the American League in starts (41), complete games (19), innings (304.2), and victories (25). Kaat was 25-13 with a 2.75 ERA that season. Also recognized as a superior fielder, Kaat won 12 consecutive Gold Gloves in Minnesota between 1962 and 1973.

Kaat was waived by the Twins midway through the 1973 season and caught on with the Chicago White Sox. At the time, Kaat was 34 years of age and had logged a ton of innings. The Twins obviously thought he was in decline, but the lefty pitched another eleven seasons in the big leagues and retired after being released by the St. Louis Cardinals midway through the 1983 season at the tender age of 44. He went on to a long and impressive career as a broadcaster, including a stint with the Twins. He was one of the game's best analysts before retiring two seasons ago.

Kaat's line in Minnesota was impressive over 15 seasons: 190-159 in 3,014.1 innings, 3.34 ERA, 433 starts, 133 complete games, 23 shutouts, and 1,851 strikeouts. He was solid, but not spectacular for a long time in Twins Territory, and deserves a spot in this rotation.

Coming in third is Johan Santana. The left-hander was a 20-year-old mid-level prospect in the Houston Astros' organization when the Twins selected him in the 2000 Rule V Draft. The Twins were rebuilding and keeping him on the MLB roster for the entire 2000 season was no big deal to the team. Santana predictably struggled as a rookie, posting a 2-3 mark with a 6.49 ERA in 30 games. He made the club out of spring training in 2001 and was 1-0 with a 4.74 ERA in 15 games, but missed a large chunk of time that season due to a left forearm injury. The Twins started him in AAA Edmonton in 2002, where he stretched out as a starter. He returned mid-season in 2002 and appeared in 27 games for the Twins that season, including 14 starts. His 8-6 mark with a 2.99 ERA in 108.1 innings showed flashes of things to come for Twins' fans. The 137 strikeouts he recorded with the Twins that season were evidence of a new changeup he learned at AAA earlier that season, a pitch which would define his career.

Santana split between the rotation and the bullpen in 2003, but recorded a fine 12-3 mark with a 3.07 ERA in 158.1 innings that season. By 2004, he was in the rotation for good and was the league's most dominant pitcher. He finished 20-6 with a league-leading 2.61 ERA in 34 starts spanning 228.0 innings. He struck out a league-leading 265 hitters and won his first AL Cy Young Award that season. He would go on to lead the AL in strikeouts the following two seasons as well. Santana picked up his second Cy Young Award in 2006 after finishing 19-6 with a league-best 2.77 ERA in 34 starts spanning a league-high 233.2 innings.

After the 2007 season, Santana was traded to the New York Mets for a package of players highlighted by outfielder Carlos Gomez, as the Twins deemed they could not afford him given his pending free agent status. Santana's line in Minnesota was one of the most impressive in team history: eight seasons, 175 starts, 1,308.2 innings, 23 complete games, four shutouts, 93-44 record, 3.22 ERA, three All-Star selections, two Cy Young Awards.

The fourth spot in the rotation was very difficult to select, but we decided to go with "Frankie V," Frank Viola. The Twins' second round draft pick out of St. John's University (NY) in 1981, Viola was rushed to the majors to debut on a bad Twins' team in 1982. He struggled on the 60-102 Twins that season, finishing 4-10 with a 5.21 ERA, and rebounded slightly in his first full MLB season in 1983, going 7-15 with a 5.49 ERA in 34 starts. As a 24-year-old, Viola broke out in 1984 as the Twins were a surprising contender in the AL West Division, and the rotation was led by Viola's 18-12 mark with a 3.21 ERA in 35 starts spanning 257.2 innings.

By 1985, Viola was the team's ace, and he led the 1987 Twins' rotation all the way to the World Series. Viola was 17-10 with a 2.90 ERA in '87, starting 36 games, pitching 251.2 innings, and striking out 197 batters. He was MVP of the World Series that season, winning two games, including the clinching Game 7. In 1988, Viola picked up the AL Cy Young Award, finishing 24-7 with a 2.64 ERA in 255.1 innings, while striking out 193 batters. By 1989, the Twins were in a predicament with Viola that they would find themselves 20 years later with Santana: facing free agency for a pitcher they probably could not afford. Knowing this, the Twins sent Viola to his hometown New York Mets for five pitchers, highlighted by Rick Aguilera, Kevin Tapani and David West. Things did not work out well for Viola in New York, and arm injuries plagued the rest of his career. He made stops in Boston, Cincinnati, and Toronto before retiring in 1996 at age 36, but his career as an elite MLB pitcher ended after his first season in New York (1990).

With the Twins, Viola spent eight seasons, made 259 starts, posted a 112-93 mark with a 3.86 ERA, threw 1,772.2 innings, and struck out 1,214 batters featuring one of the game's best circle-changes. Viola won the 1988 Cy Young Award and made one All-Star appearance in Minnesota. There were other good pitchers deserving consideration on the all-time team, but Viola gets the nod due to his brilliance between 1984-1988.

Also Considered: Mudcat Grant, Jim Perry, Dave Boswell, Dave Goltz, Kevin Tapani, Scott Erickson, Brad Radke

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