Twins counting on young arms
Garza, Baker among prospects vying for spot in rotation
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There is a stigma that is attached to youth in baseball.
Youth means a lack of experience. Youth means that a team is rebuilding. All in all, there is a perception that youth means that winning isn't really an option.
But for the Twins, young talent has continued to be one of the keys to their success. And as they approach a second straight season with a pitching rotation that is largely unsettled, it will be youth that once again will have to carry them through.
"We're going to be young no matter what," pitcher Matt Garza said. "So we now have to go out and prove that we can do it."
With the loss of veteran Brad Radke this offseason to retirement and rookie phenom Francisco Liriano sidelined for the year due to Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, the Twins have been forced to look within their organization for answers to the holes in the rotation.
It's a system that has been deep with talented arms for quite a few years. This, however, will be the first time that those pitchers will be looked to as the solution. And many around baseball have been quick to express their skepticism as to how the team will succeed by relying on unproven talent.
"It always happens when you're a young player, that people will say you don't have any experience," Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said of the questions. "But then how do you get experience? It's about taking the lessons from what you've already done and using that taste of the big leagues to help you in the future."
The Twins aren't lacking young arms with a taste of what it takes to pitch in the Majors. That's mostly due to the fact that the team had to rely on many unproven pitchers in '06 when the rotation started off the season with immediate troubles and never truly recovered.
Among those called upon to help last season were pitchers without any Major League experience like starters Boof Bonser, 25, and Garza, 23, who earned the nod in his first full year of professional baseball. It didn't stop there as the team looked to rookie left-hander Glen Perkins, 23, to pitch out of the bullpen in the playoffs after he had spent less than two weeks with the club at the end of the regular season.
Now that little bit of experience for those pitchers is paying off as the team is looking to them along with Scott Baker (25), Kevin Slowey (22) and J.D. Durbin (24) to step up this spring and claim some of the open spots.
Exactly how many of those spots are up for grabs is still somewhat of a mystery. Johan Santana will once again be the team's ace with Carlos Silva expected to be in the rotation along with Bonser. The Twins have also brought in a few veterans to compete for the openings in the rotation by signing Ramon Ortiz to a one-year deal and bringing in Sidney Ponson as a non-roster invitee.
But whether it's two spots or three or four that remain available for the taking, the chance is there for some of the staff's youthful pitchers to make a name for themselves. And those young arms aren't oblivious to the rare opportunity that they have been granted.
"A lot of other teams just go out and buy high-paid free agents to fill their holes," Garza said. "We're fortunate to have a shot at least competing for a job. Other teams you go into camp and say, 'Ah well, I'll just have to watch and learn.' You'd have to wait a long time to even have a shot to break camp. But here we're being given the opportunity to be the guy, if we earn it."
Not every pitcher in this group will be able to make the rotation. But that doesn't mean that this glimpse won't pay off even later this season if any problems arise like they did last year.
"It's fun to watch them go about their work because they know they are competing for a spot in that rotation," Anderson said. "They know what's ahead of them and what they can accomplish here. Now it's just about them going out and earning it."
Which pitchers will be the ones to grab the attention of the coaching staff is still anyone's guess. The talent level is there for all of those involved, and many of these pitchers have proven that with more than enough success throughout the levels of the Minor Leagues. It's a stiff competition that will require each pitcher to bring their best throughout the spring, and it seems all are up for the challenge.
"You look down this whole row of pitchers and everybody could be on a big league staff," Garza said as he looked at the lockers surrounding his in the Hammond Stadium clubhouse. "It's going to be fun."
And that fun starts now.
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.