Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Twins 5, Jays 0; Pitchers on the bubble

Today Johan Santana again pitched like he's ready for the season to start next Monday, shutting out the Blue Jays for 4 innings while allowing 2 hits and 1 walk, with 2 strikeouts. C.J. Nitkowski and Scott Baker each followed with 2 scoreless innings apiece, and Willie Eyre closed up with a 1-2-3 final inning.

The club announced that Grant Balfour's forearm is still bothering him, so he'll begin the season on the Disabled List, which of course has us faithful fans buzzing about who could take his spot at the end of camp. Baker or Durbin? The Rule 5 kid? Will Gassner get a break?

Scott Baker is a top prospect who has pitched well this month--today he struck out 3 while walking none and giving up only one hit--but I think we can bank on him going to Rochester until the club decides he's ready to come up for good. It seems unlike Terry Ryan to bring up a green starting pitching prospect to begin the season on a two-week trial out of the Twins bullpen, just to see what he could do in 6-8 innings. It's hard to say whether he's ready for promotion at this point, and there isn't much to learn from observing him in such a limited sample anyway, even if he does well in the assignment. J.D. Durbin, the self-proclaimed "Real Deal," seems more of the type and temperament to fill Balfour's role, but he hasn't made a good impression in camp so far. It's looking like more polishing in AAA would be best for him, as well.

It seems like a fortuitous opportunity to hang onto the Rule 5 kid for at least a couple weeks into the season, but to this point Rowland-Smith has been pitching at the end of games when the big league starters usually have been pulled from the lineup. It doesn't look like Gardenhire has any plans to keep the young Aussie on the roster. More likely, I'm guessing TR will try to swing a deal with Seattle to keep the kid at New Britain if he and his staff like what they see. His performance last season shows that he has real talent (3.79 ERA, 10.75 K/9, 3.97 K/BB rate), but he was just in High Class A. It's not a practical idea for a contending team to carry him on the roster all season.

So that about leaves the marginal filler guys--the 4-A pitchers, the NRI veterans trying to hang on. Twins fans, I give you... Matt Guerrier, Dave Gassner, and C.J. Nitkowski.

We saw some of Guerrier with the club last season. He's kind of like Scott Baker with a few miles per hour off the fastball. Such is one primary difference between a sterling prospect and a 4-A journeyman, I suppose. He has an effective slow curveball, but his fastball hits 88-89 at best, and he really needs to be hitting his targets precisely to get batters out. When he left pitches up last season, major league hitters gobbled up the offerings like Kobayashi at Coney Island. (Opponents hit .293/.354/.533 off him.) He did well in Rochester, so I'm glad the club rewarded him with the chance to pitch for the Twins, but I doubt he impressed Gardenhire enough to think of him as a reliable fallback option.

Gassner is another soft-tosser who has pitched well in the minors since joining the organization as part of the Kielty-Stewart trade. In game action last weekend, the FSN had him topping out at just 84-85 mph. I've heard reports that he's capable of breaking 90 with his fastball, but I don't know. As a minor leaguer who needs to rely on deception and control to fool batters, that would explain the club's decision not to bring him up after rosters expanded last September. Young pitchers who throw a mid-80s fastball tend to be taken as seriously as running backs who run a 4.9 40 at the NFL combine, 5'10" guards with a nice set shot, or Ashlee Simpson holding a live mic. I hope to see Gassner find his niche with the Twins at some point. I think a guy like him makes a Terry Mulholland expendable, and if Old Terence has to hang 'em up before the end of the season that could be Gassner's chance. But I'm guessing he won't be first in line to fill a temporary hole left by Balfour's injury.

Based on the club's past decisions, I'd bet on Nitkowski to plug the spot. He's a veteran, which means Gardenhire will feel like he can be trusted, or at least he doesn't have to worry about babying him. He can be used as a longman, to spot start, or as a secondary alternative to match up against lefties. If he works out for awhile, great. Balfour can take his time getting well. If he bombs, OK, just release him and try somebody else. Thanks, buddy. Hope you had a good time riding with us. The club has no longterm investment in him, anyway.

So keep an eye on Nitkowski the rest of camp. Get to know 'em. Unless he tanks over the next few weeks, I expect him to be one of the boys when the team comes home to Twins Territory.


At 3/20/2005 8:38 AM, Blogger Third Base Line said...

Just a note on Gassner--last year, he wasn't on the 40-man roster and so wasn't eligible for a callup. I'm sure he would have gotten the call if it hadn't meant exposing someone else to waivers. :)

At 3/20/2005 12:30 PM, Blogger frightwig said...

I remember that he wasn't on the 40-man, but also that they found room for Joe Beimel! :)

Seth Greisinger didn't pitch for the Twins after mid-June, and was cut after the season. (He's in the Nationals camp this spring.) It seems a bit odd that they couldn't have exposed him to waivers on 8/31 in order to give Gassner a September callup.

At 3/21/2005 8:34 AM, Blogger Third Base Line said...

That was a bit odd, but maybe it boils down to the fact that it was late in the season, and they'd at least seen Greisinger's stuff first-hand at the ML level, if they needed an emergency callup?

I remember looking at Gassner's AAA numbers in late August and thinking that they really ought to find room for him (perhaps by dropping Adam Johnson), but they didn't.

Gassner looked really sharp when I saw him in Fort Myers a couple of weeks ago, I'm glad he's on the 40-man this year.

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