The Hot Seat

There’s no better indicator of a player on the hot seat than the dreaded vote of confidence. On Friday, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that the Twins will keep Pedro Hernandez in the starting rotation for at least one more start. Sounds like a guy with a firm hold on his job to me! It’s time to take a look at why Hernandez will lose his rotation spot in the near future and who could replace him.

To begin with, Hernandez is not long for this rotation, no matter what the Twins are telling the media. The 24-year-old lefty is a prototype left-handed specialist who somehow is starting baseball games—major league baseball games, at that. Andrew Berg, my podcast co-host, referred to Hernandez a couple weeks ago as “the loogiest of loogies.” Andrew, as he often is, was very much right on this one. Hernandez’s split stats so far this season tell the whole story:

{exp:list_maker}vs L: 34 batters faced, .147/.147/.206 (.151 wOBA), 0 BB, 5 K
vs R: 67 batters faced, .414/.493/.810 (.542 wOBA), 9 BB, 4 K {/exp:list_maker}
Wow. Just look at those numbers. When a righty comes to the plate against Hernandez, there’s essentially a 50/50 shot of him getting on base. Then consider the fact that he’s also served up five homers to righties and none to lefties.

But wait, there’s more! Twelve of the 67 righties Hernandez has faced have tagged him for an extra-base hit. Yes, there is seriously a starting pitcher in a major league rotation who is currently surrendering extra-base hits to 18 percent of the right-handed hitters he faces.

Clearly, this little experiment won’t continue for long. To be fair to Hernandez, it’s not that he’s a bad pitcher. He’s just been put in a situation that does not suit his skills. If I was a manager, I’d love to have a lefty-killer like him in my bullpen.

So who takes his spot when Hernandez inevitably loses it? On the 25-man roster, the Twins have some pretty dreary alternatives. Cole DeVries is currently rehabbing his forearm injury but isn’t expected back for at least a couple more weeks. Anthony Swarzak and Ryan Pressly have been starters in the past, but neither of them could be considered anything resembling a long-term option.

Actually, if you’re not a Twins fan and you know who both Swarzak and Pressly are, pat yourself on the back. To be completely honest, I’m a lifelong Twins fan, and I had no clue who Pressly was until a couple months ago when I saw him pitching in a spring training game. Once I looked into his numbers and realized that he put up a tasty 6.28 ERA and 1.47 WHIP in High-A ball last year, I forgave myself for the oversight.

It is possible the Twins will use some combination of Hernandez, Swarzak and Pressly until DeVries is fully healthy. DeVries, however, is no great shakes himself. Sure, his 4.11 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 87.2 innings last year look pretty good on the surface, but then you see the .258 BABIP and the 4.90 FIP, and you start to back away.

Then you stumble upon the fact that the Twins turned him from a starter to a reliever in 2010, when he was struggling mightily in his second Double-A season, only to turn him back into a starter last season in Triple-A. In short, the guy the Twins are waiting to get back off the DL to fill the fifth starter’s spot is the same guy they gave up on as a starter in the minors three years ago. Sounds promising!

The long-term answer for the Twins clearly is top pitching prospect Kyle Gibson. The only real question is how long the club will wait to bring him up. The window of opportunity obviously is there (this is the same team that featured Vance Worley as its Opening Day starter this year), and Gibson certainly is pitching like a guy who can improve that rotation.

The 25-year-old righty has bounced back nicely from undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2011 and is having a great season in Triple-A. In 40.2 innings over seven starts this year, Gibson has pitched to a 3.32 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 2.93 FIP, with 35 strikeouts against 11 walks.

Gibson has many of the characteristics of the traditional “Twins starter,” such as the groundball tendencies, low-90s fastball and good command. The difference here is that Gibson stands 6-foot-6 and actually can strike guys out, with a career 8.1 K/9 rate in the minors and the stuff to strike out major-league hitters as well (both his slider and change-up are above-average offerings). His height gives all of his pitches tremendous downward plane, which gives him a bit of deception in the delivery as well as the ability to generate grounders.

Have you guessed yet that I really like Kyle Gibson? He’s ready to be a solid No. 3 or No. 4 starter right now, and as the Twins have demonstrated with Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia, they’re more than willing to give their top prospects long looks in the majors this year.

Also of interest is that Gibson’s last Triple-A start (a four-hit shutout) was on Wednesday, which just so happens to be the same day Hernandez was getting ripped for six runs in just two innings with the big-league club. Gibson’s next start is Monday, the same day Hernandez probably will be getting shelled by the White Sox. You get the idea.

As I said earlier, it’s not a question of whether Gibson will be in the Twins rotation this year; it’s more of a question of whether it will be next week or next month. And once he gets there, he’ll be pitching half his games in Target Field, one of the most pitcher-friendly environments in the majors.

Be aware that Gibson’s innings likely will be limited this year as it is his first full season after Tommy John surgery, but I don’t expect his performance to be limited at all. Go ahead and stash him in AL-only leagues right now; don’t wait until he’s up and you have to blow a bunch of your FAAB budget on him.

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