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Twins Notes: Pitching rotation leads the list of decisions awaiting Gardenhire

With six starters for five rotation spots, someone is headed to the bullpen or the trade block.  Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey are left to battle for the final starting spot.

• With six starters for five rotation spots, someone is headed to the bullpen or the trade block and Ron Gardenhire wasted no time announcing that Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn will be joining Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano in the rotation, leaving Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey in a two-man battle for the final slot. Duensing got the nod because he’s 12-3 with a 2.93 ERA in 22 career starts and Blackburn got the nod because … well, I’m not exactly sure.

Elbow problems are being blamed for Blackburn’s struggles last season, and he did pitch well in eight starts down the stretch after returning from Triple-A in mid-August, but his hittability was hardly limited to the first half of last year. In fact, since Blackburn joined the rotation in 2008, his .294 opponents’ batting average, .458 opponents’ slugging percentage, and 4.2 strikeouts per nine innings are all the worst of any American League pitcher with at least 75 starts.

Baker and Slowey both significantly out-performed Blackburn last season, and both have better career ERAs in addition to superior secondary numbers. Yet not only is Blackburn locked into a rotation spot, he wasn’t even forced to compete for the job. Duensing getting the early nod is easier to understand but also should have been something other than a no-brainer call given his 4.18 xFIP in those 22 starts and mediocre minor-league track record as a starter.

Duensing is due to come back down to earth, although that certainly doesn’t mean he won’t have success as a full-time starter. However, his long-term outlook there is similar to Baker or Slowey as a mid-rotation, 4.25-ERA guy. Duensing also has the most bullpen experience with a 3.18 ERA in 76 relief innings and has shown an extreme platoon split (.502 OPS versus lefties, .747 OPS versus righties) that can be exploited more as a starter than as a reliever.

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Duensing’s success in a limited number of starts makes it tough to fault Gardenhire for wanting to see what he can do in the rotation full time, but based on the six starters’ potential value to the bullpen, Duensing stands out because he’s done the job well before and is well-suited for a role that matches him up against as many left-handed hitters as possible. There’s a bigger gap between Duensing and other bullpen options than between Duensing and Baker or Slowey.

I’d lean toward sending Duensing back to the bullpen, at least initially, but have no real issue with Gardenhire deciding otherwise. Blackburn winning a rotation spot without even having to compete against a pair of equally experienced starters who were vastly superior in 2010 and have similar, if not better, track records is a much bigger eyebrow-raiser and has me thinking the Twins are trying to light a fire under Baker and find a palatable trade for Slowey.

• From the moment the Twins signed Tsuyoshi, Nishioka my assumption has been that he’d hit second in the lineup and Gardenhire all but confirmed that by saying he prefers Nishioka in the No. 2 spot and Alexi Casilla in the No. 9 spot. For better or worse, Gardenhire always favors a light-hitting middle infielder batting second, and based on his Japanese track record Nishioka is certainly a better bet than Casilla to post a strong on-base percentage.

His adjustment to MLB pitching will determine the type of on-base skills Nishioka brings to the table, but he projects for a solid batting average and controlled the strike zone well in Japan while drawing 83 walks per 150 games in his final two years. He’s also a switch-hitter, which is nice in between left-handed bats Denard Span and Joe Mauer, and has the speed to stay out of double plays. Meanwhile, in 1,073 career plate appearances, Casilla has a .306 OBP.

As for where Nishioka and Casilla will be playing defensively, it took only a week of mixing and matching them for Gardenhire to settle on Casilla at shortstop and Nishioka at second base. Casilla has the better arm, and Gardenhire has already seen him play a couple of hundred innings there, whereas Nishioka drew early praise for his work at second base, made a throwing error at shortstop, and apparently expressed more comfort at second base.

Nishioka isn’t going anywhere following a $15 million investment, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens if Casilla struggles enough to lose his starting spot. Will they slide Nishioka to shortstop and replace Casilla with, say, Luke Hughes at second base? Or is Nishioka forever entrenched at second base, leaving Matt Tolbert and Trevor Plouffe as the iffy alternatives to Casilla, who himself is a question mark offensively and, at shortstop at least, defensively?

• Gardenhire told all the beat writers to stop asking him for updates on Justin Morneau:

I have no idea. I’m not even getting into that. That’s done. Don’t ask me about him anymore. You’re going to start tweeting it and blogging it. That’s over with.

My sense is that had more to do with Gardenhire being annoyed about dealing with the media regarding Morneau’s status than with his frustration about Morneau’s actual status, although certainly it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. Doctors have still not cleared Morneau for game action eight months after suffering a concussion, which is troubling to say the least with just three weeks until Opening Day even if he continues to make “progress” in his recovery.

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• One side effect of Morneau possibly not being ready for Opening Day is that it would create an opportunity for another position player to crack the roster. Gardenhire has been full of early praise for Hughes, and he’d make sense as the choice. Hughes is 26 years old and ranks just 33rd on my list of Twins prospects, following an injury-wrecked 2010, but if healthy, he has the potential to be a solid right-handed bench bat or platoon starter.

Reviews of his defense tend to be underwhelming, but Hughes has gotten extensive action at second base and third base in the minors along with some experience at first base and both outfield corners. He’s batted .282/.348/.473 with 20-homer power in 1,265 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A, which can be useful in a part-time role even if Hughes doesn’t have quite enough bat to be an asset as a poor-gloved regular.

Ben Badler of Baseball America notes that the Twins spent $2.54 million signing international prospects in 2010, which ranks 12th in baseball despite being about $600,000 less than they spent on Miguel Sano alone in 2009. Sano’s bonus of $3.15 million was the second-highest in MLB history for a non-Cuban international prospect and the Twins also shelled out $775,000 for German outfielder Max Kepler and $750,000 for Dominican infielder Jorge Polanco in 2009.

Last season’s biggest investment was $575,000 for Dominican infielder Javier Pimentel, which ranked as the 23rd-largest international signing bonus of the year across MLB. Of course, even $575,000 for Pimentel is more than the White Sox spent ($375,000) on international prospects overall in 2010, and the Tigers, Indians and Royals were all in the $2.5 million range with the Twins. For a whole lot more about the international prospect market, see Badler’s great work.

Michael Cuddyer is slated to miss two weeks, thanks to having a wart removed from his foot after offseason self-treatment attempts led to an infection. It’d be a shame if an issue he had since before Thanksgiving lingers into the season, because it seemingly should have been handled prior to arriving at spring training. Cuddyer tweeted a picture if you’re interested in seeing the giant hole in his foot where a wart used to be and aren’t worried about losing your appetite.

• Speaking of right-handed hitting corner outfielders with foot problems, Delmon Young has yet to make his spring training debut because of turf toe, which is a more pleasant-sounding way of saying sprained big toe ligaments. There’s no timetable for Young’s spring debut, but says the injury needs “ample time to heal” and “typically takes 2-3 weeks for the pain to subside.” Bad news for someone who already played left field like he had a foot injury.

• Twins President Dave St. Peter told Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press that they “will ambush people” this season because “everybody’s picking the White Sox and the Tigers.” If there’s one thing you can always count on in sports, it’s that everyone wants to believe they’re underdogs or at the very least underrated. In this case, St. Peter perceives “everybody” going against the Twins, but the early gambling odds have them as favorites for the division title.

Parker Hageman at Over The Baggy has a really interesting, unique video-based analysis of Kyle Gibson throwing batting practice to Mauer and Morneau that explains why he’ll hopefully be an extreme ground-ball pitcher whenever he arrives in Minnesota.