Notes: Blackburn aims for rotation

Notes: Blackburn aims for rotation

Whether Johan Santana is part of the Twins' rotation for the 2008 season or not, the starting staff next year will be undeniably young.

With the Twins focusing on upgrading their offense this offseason, the battle for spots in the rotation is expected to come down to the club's talented array of pitching prospects. And there is one young pitcher who has already started to make his case this fall -- right-hander Nick Blackburn.

Blackburn is 4-0 with a 1.64 ERA in six starts for the Phoenix Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League.

The Desert Dogs clinched the Eastern Division title this past week and will play Saturday in the AFL championship game against the Surprise Rafters. Blackburn is expected to get the start in that game.

Blackburn's performance in the AFL is a large turnaround from the finish he had during his September callup with the Twins. After allowing just two runs over his first 8 2/3 innings with the Twins, Blackburn faltered in his final two outings. He gave up four runs in two innings at Detroit and then surrendered four more runs in just one inning vs. the Red Sox at Fenway Park.

The Twins coaching staff attributed the problems to Blackburn's inability to change speeds with his pitches. So Blackburn headed to the Arizona Fall League with the purpose of figuring out a better pitching plan. But Blackburn said the change didn't happen overnight.

"My first start out here was rough," Blackburn said. "I was throwing way too many pitches that were too hard, fastballs and cutters. My cutter is 86 or 90 mph, which is not too far off my fastball. So I ran into quite a bit of trouble, giving up three runs in two innings."

Blaming the poor first start on a bit of stubbornness and a lack of communication with his catcher, Blackburn said he was upset with himself and knew that he had to make a significant change. So he worked on throwing what he deemed "a ton" of offspeed pitches.

The change has been displayed in Blackburn's numbers. After giving up the three runs in his first start, Blackburn has since allowed just one run. He has struck out 20 batters and walked only two over his 22 innings.

"He made some adjustments, and it's shown," said Jim Rantz, the Twins director of Minor Leagues. "He feels more comfortable and more confident. He took that advice and made the necessary changes to be successful."

Considering how he ended the season in Minnesota, Blackburn said the opportunity to come to Arizona and finish on a better note was a gift.

"Coming out here and pitching well so far, it's kind of rejuvenated me," Blackburn said. "It made me realize the type of season I had and what I have to do to improve next year."

Blackburn will get his first opportunity to be in big league camp this spring, and there will be a lot riding on his performance. While Blackburn seems a long shot to make the rotation, the Twins likely will have an opening for a long reliever now that Matt Guerrier has moved into a late-inning role. And the right-hander seems more than willing to try any role that will get him back in Minnesota.

"I feel like I can pitch at that level, especially now that I've learned the type of pitch plan that I need to have," Blackburn said. "I would love to be up there and I could [not] care less which role it's in, a starter or in the bullpen. But I'm not going to be disappointed if I don't start off there because it seems there will have to be a lot of changes made there for that to happen."

Hot Stove

Contract confusion: The Twins' acquisition of outfielder Craig Monroe this week came on the basis that the club would try to sign him for less than the $4.8 million he made last season.

Exactly how much of a cut in salary the Twins could offer became a source of some confusion this week. Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony confirmed Thursday that Major League Baseball rules state the maximum cut in salary is 20 percent.

The Twins can negotiate with Monroe until Dec. 1, the deadline for non-tendering players. Indications are that the Twins are going to offer Monroe a one-year deal with incentives. If the two sides cannot reach a deal by the deadline, the club is expected to let Monroe become a free agent. As for the player to be named part of the trade, the Cubs will only receive a lower-tiered prospect from the Twins if Monroe is signed.

Winter tradition: This week, the Twins announced the plans for the club's annual TwinsFest, which will take place on Jan. 25-27.

More than 50 former, current and future Twins players are scheduled to be on hand for the event. New to TwinsFest in 2008 is a three-dimensional model of the new Twins ballpark, which is set to open in 2010. The 5-foot by 5-foot model will be on display throughout the weekend. Twins staff and architects will be on hand to answer questions and explain the amenities in the ballpark.

TwinsFest also marks the first opportunity for fans to purchase single-game tickets for the 2008 season. Those tickets go on sale Friday, Jan. 25 at 5:30 p.m. CT.

All paid admissions to TwinsFest will also include a free Upper Club ticket for a 2008 regular-season home game. Prices for admission to the event are $8 in advance for adults ($12 at the door) and $4 in advance for children 14 and under ($6 at the door).

Roster move: The Twins put catcher Chris Heintz on unconditional release waivers Friday, clearing a spot on the club's 40-man roster.

Teams must have their 40-man rosters set by Tuesday. The Twins roster currently stands at 36 players.

Twins tidbits: Larry Corrigan, who spent 20 years in the Twins baseball operations department before resigning on Nov. 5, took a job with the Pittsburgh Pirates this week. Corrigan will now work as a special assistant to new Pirates GM Neal Huntington. Corrigan had recently spent 11 seasons as a special assistant to former Twins GM Terry Ryan. ... Nick Punto and his wife, Natalie, are expecting their first child. Natalie is due to give birth in early June. ... Brian Buscher left the Venezuelan Winter League early to attend to some family issues. Buscher hit .279 with two doubles and a home run in 12 games for the Tigres de Aragua. ... Shortstop Trevor Plouffe, who is currently playing for the Desert Dogs in the AFL, was sidelined for a bit of time this past week with a tender shoulder. Rantz said Plouffe should be available to play in the championship game on Saturday.

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