Blue-chippers fighting for starting gig

Blue-chippers fighting for fifth starter role

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Depth has never been a problem when it comes to the Twins' pitching but such a tremendous asset can also create a bit of a dilemma.

That seems to be the case once again as the Twins have an overload of pitchers who could compete for an open spot in the team's pitching rotation for the 2006 season.

But while there have been plenty of names mentioned for the Twins' fifth spot, the race appears to come down to a battle of two players who have each earned the honors as the Twins' Minor League Pitcher of the Year in the last two seasons. Scott Baker, 24, and Francisco Liriano, 22, have both been touted as the next wave of Twins starters, but who will get the chance to make his presence felt this coming season has yet to be determined.

Both of the Twins' young arms made their debut at the Major League level in 2005 with Baker getting slightly a few more starts than Liriano. Judging exactly who will emerge as the No. 5 starter is difficult as each pitcher brings his own strengths to the role. But as Spring Training opens, it appears that Baker has the slight edge.

"We look at Baker as probably being the guy, but anything can happen," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Liriano is a great pitcher with some great stuff. You just never know. We don't want anyone taking it for granted that they've got this club made."

The good news for the Twins is that Baker is taking that exact approach, despite having had the chance to show that he could compete at the Major League level with his 3-3 record and 3.35 ERA in nine starts. Baker isn't treading on his past success. The 24-year-old approached this year's time in Fort Myers as a job interview and did his best to prepare for that.

"I'm coming into this spring in the best shape of my life," Baker said. "I've worked hard knowing what this Spring Training entails for me.

A big, strong pitcher with plenty of deception in his pitches, Baker has what it takes to join a staff as strong as the Twins. The one area the right-hander may have to improve on to earn the nod this spring is to make sure that he keeps his pitches down.

"We saw a couple of times at the end where he was out of the strike zone a little bit too much and he got behind a little bit," Gardenhire said. "Maybe with some experience and being around the other guys will help him. But no matter what, he's a good competitor. He'll battle."

As to whether or not Baker feels ready to take on the top spot, there is no question about his feelings on the issue.

"I feel like I've proven myself in the Minor Leagues," Baker said. "I don't feel like I have anything else to prove there. I feel like I pitched well enough to try to solidify a spot but there are a lot of other guys who did the same thing."

One of those pitchers who did just that is Liriano. The southpaw did more than enough to impress anyone who saw what he did in his tear through the Minors last season. He enjoyed a rapid ascension from Double-A New Britain, where he put together back-to-back 10 strikeout games, to Triple-A Rochester, where he went an astounding 9-2 with a 1.78 ERA. Even more impressive may be that the young lefty led all Minor League pitchers in strikeouts with 204.

"If you look at his numbers, people would say no wonder you talk about him," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "But the first thing you talk about with him is, No. 1 he's left-handed and No. 2, he throws hard. When you find a lefty who throws hard and can get in the same area code as the strike zone, there is a good chance you are going to talk about him."

With the hype surrounding the 22-year-old phenom comes the comparisons to the Twins' other dominant left-hander -- Johan Santana. A hard-throwing lefty with a good slider, a strong fastball and a better-than-average changeup, Liriano's similarities to Santana are almost too numerous to mention.

"I just take it as a compliment," Liriano said of the comparisons. "I feel really good about that. He's the Cy Young winner. He's one of the best pitchers all of baseball and my friend, too."

Being only 22 years old though, the age issue inevitably becomes a bit of a question for Liriano. His inexperience may play a slight factor as it showed in his four starts for the Twins in September. But Ryan warns that the 1-2 record with a 5.70 ERA he put together during his time up with the club may be a bit misleading.

"Don't look at his stat sheet in September and all of a sudden think that's who he is," Ryan said. "The kid is 21, he's trying to make an impression and he's pitching against the White Sox and the Indians who are quite talented. I thought he did as much as you can expect a young guy to do. All he has to do now is get comfortable and have a little more command of his fastball."

Proving that he's ready could make the significant leap a little more difficult. The slight edge that Baker has at the position now might grow into a chasm as Liriano is a possibility to pitch for his home country, the Dominican Republic, in the World Baseball Classic.

Though Gardenhire has said that he wouldn't punish a player for taking part in the prestigious event, the fact that Liriano won't be able to do the impressing right in front of the coaching staff could hinder his chances. On the other hand, performing well on a national stage could also make his case stronger.

"You've got a guy competing for the world games, but yet he's trying to make my ballclub here," Gardenhire said. "If he's pitching somewhere else and one of the other pitchers here is dominating, what do you do? That makes it tough on all parties, but it's something we can't control."

Though it may not be the ideal way for the Twins to conduct the search for the No. 5 role, it appears that whoever wins the spot will have the full support of the organization.

"The only downside to these two guys is that they don't have a track record," Ryan said. "There are a lot of things that a Liriano and a Baker are going to have to prove up here before you start giving them the confidence you would with a [Brad] Radke and a Santana. But we are excited about our pitching because we have guys like those two."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.