Pitching choices abound this year

Pitching choices abound for Twins this year

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Heading into Spring Training this year, manager Ron Gardenhire admitted that he had his reservations concerning the club's starting rotation.

With only one proven starter, Johan Santana, the skipper feared that things could go absolutely south for the rotation if some of the pitchers proved not to be ready for the challenge.

"We were hoping that it wouldn't be one of those 'we don't have a choice'-type things," Gardenhire said. "We didn't want to have to go with pitchers because they were our only options."

But after nearly five weeks of camp, the story hasn't been whether the team will find enough arms but rather the difficult decisions that the team now faces in choosing just which arms will have to be left off the starting staff.

With the veteran arms the team brought in showing some renewed life and the young starters putting up one heck of a fight, the team is left with a different sort of dilemma than had been envisioned, and one that is much preferred.

"We now have choices," Gardenhire said. "Guys have been throwing pretty well up to this point. We still have time left here, so these last few days are going to be interesting to see how it all shakes out."

The dilemma of having to leave talented pitchers off the roster is one that the Twins will take, considering that the starting pitching was viewed as the weakest part of the club when Spring Training began.

The Twins' two biggest offseason acquisitions didn't help much to make it appear as though things would be settled in regard to the starting staff. Signing veteran right-handers Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson to one-year deals looked more like questionable decisions rather than good solutions to the problems that faced the team, considering the lack of success the two have had in recent years.

But so far this spring, both pitchers look to have bounced back from their previous woes to show the Twins they might be welcome additions. With Ortiz holding a 0.75 ERA in four starts and Ponson getting back the look of his old sinker, the team has hopes that both could help bolster this rotation.

Combine that with impressive performances this spring by young arms Matt Garza and Glen Perkins -- who have delivered solid outings in a tight race that also includes Carlos Silva and Boof Bonser -- and what it has meant is some intense competition for a starting job.

"I would say one of the biggest strengths of this camp has been our pitching," general manager Terry Ryan said. "It's tough to argue with the results we've had this spring."

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But strong springs don't necessarily equal success in the regular season. Consider last season, when the Twins left camp with high expectations for a starting staff that seemed fairly settled.

Right-hander Kyle Lohse was coming off one of the best springs of his career (5-0 with a 2.42 ERA), Silva had seemed to right things after spending the World Baseball Classic in the bullpen for Venezuela and Scott Baker had impressed enough in his six starts to earn the fifth spot in the rotation. The starting rotation had an overall combined 3.71 ERA out of Spring Training and appeared headed for plenty of success.

Instead the 2006 season got off on a bad foot, with Silva, Lohse and even veteran Brad Radke struggling to produce quality outings. In April the Twins' starting staff held an overall ERA of 7.21. Things didn't improve as the team entered May, and the season turned into a patchwork of how to fill the holes in the rotation without enough experienced arms in the Minor League system. The club used 10 starters in the rotation last season, and the hope is that a similar occurrence won't be necessary this year.

But while the club is hoping for a different outcome in 2007, the knowledge is now there that if things do turn sour, there will be options.

Heading into the final week of Spring Training, the rotation appeared as though it would consist of Santana, Silva, Ortiz, Ponson and Bonser. And that means that Garza and Perkins will again be left right on the doorstep. With those two down at Triple-A Rochester along with another top arm in right-hander Kevin Slowey and Baker also waiting in the wings for a chance at redemption, the team is stocked with options just a phone call away.

And this time, the Twins say, they won't hesitate to pull the trigger a little sooner should anything appear to go wrong.

"No doubt," Gardenhire said of his willingness to change up his staff early in the season. "You want to give people a chance, but in our division, you just can't sit there and wait around. If you start getting beat around for two or three outings, we'll probably have to figure something out, because our division is going to be very competitive, and you can't afford to get too far behind."

Ryan knows all too well that the team can't afford to try to make up ground the way it did during its historic 2006 run, coming back from as many as 12 1/2 games back in the division to overtake Detroit for the American League Central title. So given the tumultuous nature of the staff last year, Ryan is trying to be prepared for whatever may come, even if things look bright at the moment.

"Our pitching has been stable here but it could crack today, tomorrow or the next day," he said. "To this point I think we've been somewhat consistent on the mound. I think we have a good situation. We have people pitching that want these jobs, and we have enough to certainly make our choices hard."

Choices are nice, but in the end, there's no doubt in the Twins' minds that results are even better.

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