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Getting Kevin Slowey out of Minnesota

The Twins currently have a problem that every team envies: they have more starters than rotation spots. This type of thing usually takes care of itself. Sometimes one of those guys gets hurt. Other times someone performs well below expectations. But however it shakes out, every team in the league would love to have the problem of six starters for five spots. The Twins have that now, and they have Kyle Gibson knocking on the door. They might deal with this via trade. We’ve heard the Francisco Liriano rumors, but those have quieted. Lately we’ve been hearing more about Kevin Slowey.

It’s easy to understand why the Twins prefer to deal Slowey rather than their other five starters. He’s still young and has value in that way, and he’s relatively cheap. That should get them a decent return. He’s also injury prone, which means they might not miss him that much (though that should reduce the return, obviously). The Twins have a few similar pitchers, but Slowey probably presents the best balance between the production he can provide for the team and the value they’d receive in return.

The most damning figure with Slowey is his fly ball rate. For his career that’s a 48.1% rate, but it has risen in each of the last three seasons, peaking last year at 50.6%. Those type of fly ball numbers — third highest among MLB starters in the last three seasons — usually combine well with strikeouts, but Slowey is fringe average in that regard. The one advantage he holds is his home park, Target Field. Its spacious confines help mitigate the fly ball issue, as fewer of them will leave the park. But there is also a drawback: the Twins outfield defense.

Denard Span is easily the best outfielder on the team, which is helpful because he plays the most important outfield position. The guys around him, however, leave much to be desired. There is no defensive measure — not a single stat, not even a sympathetic eyeball — that rates Delmon Young as anything resembling a decent left fielder. Anecdotally he improved a bit in 2010, but of all the defensive stats only UZR bears that out, and even then he’s far below average. Then there is Michael Cuddyer, who plays bad defense wherever he is on the diamond. The Twins sometimes use Jason Kubel to spell him, but he’s just as bad, if not worse. Jason Repko is the only decent corner outfielder on the team, but they won’t play him much because he can’t hit.

To say this causes problems for a fly ball pitcher who allowed a lot of balls in play is an understatement. Slowey is simply a poor match for this team as currently constructed. It’s a shame, really, because if the Twins had decent defenders in the corners Slowey would provide a good fit for Target Field. His primary value comes from his control — he owns a career 1.50 BB/9 — and that will play anywhere. Target Field can help prevent damage on those frequent fly balls. But if the outfielders have trouble running down said fly balls, what is a good fit turns into a poor one. At that point, there’s a good chance that Slowey has more value for another team than he does the Twins.

Even still, the idea of trading Slowey might be difficult to stomach. As Paul pointed out in his season preview, Nick Blackburn is easily the least valuable of the current Twins rotation candidates. But the Twins would have a hard time receiving value in return for him. He is coming off a terrible 2010 season, and still has three years and $13.25 million left on his contract. Scott Baker might get the Twins more in return, but he’s one of two pitchers in the rotation with an above-average strikeout rate. In the same breath, we can eliminate Francisco Liriano from the equation.

If the Twins feel that they can shore up other areas of their club by dealing a pitcher, Slowey does make a degree of sense. He’s not the worst pitcher on the staff, but given his injury history and his poor fit with the current ballclub, he might be of less use to them than to another team. His age and pristine control might make him attractive to teams looking to fill out the back end of their rotations. I do agree with Paul, in that all six of the Twins starters will see time in the rotation this year. But if they’re going to deal one, Slowey appears to be as good a candidate as any.