The starting rotation absorbed another small blow yesterday, as we learned Nick Blackburn will have surgery on his wrist on Wednesday. His 2nd surgery of the off-season will land him in a cast for 6 weeks, and essentially wipe out his spring training. Blackburn didn’t figure to have the inside track on one of the 5 spots in the rotation, after posting a 7.39 ERA in 19 starts with the Twins in 2012 and passing through waivers on his way to Rochester in August. With the cluster of possibilities, none outside of Diamond and Worley considered a lock, he would have been at least a minor factor in the competition. Who could step up to help fill out the rotation? Enter Liam Hendriks.
Hendriks turn 24 just before spring training starts in February, beginning his 6th season since signing with the Twins. He dominated at AAA Rochester last season going 9-3 with a 2.20 ERA in 16 starts. That success didn’t translate to the major leagues as he finished 1-8 with a 5.59 ERA in 16 starts with the Twins. While he sported a .978 WHIP in AAA, he struggled to a 1.547 WHIP in the majors.
Hendriks struggled the most with his slider at the major league level. According to Fangraphs, he threw it 194 times, and 7 of those sliders ended up in the seats. The slider, more often than not, caught too much of the strike zone, and major league hitters didn’t miss. I imagine Hendriks’ confidence in the pitch wavered as he moved up to face professional hitters, and as he tried to be too perfect it hung far too often.
Although his numbers so far in two partial seasons with the Twins don’t give fans much hope, Hendriks may be due for somewhat of a breakthrough in 2013. Looking at their trek through the minor leagues to reach the age of 24, two former Twins put together similar careers leading up to a solid season. Brad Radke and Kevin Slowey, similar in style, had young careers that mirrored that of Liam Hendriks.
Radke blew through each level in the minors, really only struggling for half a season at AA in 1993. His ERA was 2.66 in 29 games at age 21 for AA Nashville; and he finished with a a career WHIP of 1.149, 2.0 BB/9, and 7.0 K/9 in the minor leagues. At age 22 and 23, Radke pitched his first two full seasons in the majors, struggling to a 22-30 record, 4.84 ERA, and led the AL in home runs allowed both seasons (32 & 40).
Slowey was even better in his time in the minors leading up to his major league debut. At age 23 he made 20 starts for AAA Rochester, and 10-5 with a 1.89 ERA in 133.2 innings. His career minor league WHIP is .935, giving up 1.4 BB/9 and 8.4 K/9. Slowey also struggled making his Twins debut at age 23 pitching 13 games (11 starts) and ending with a 4.73 ERA. Slowey gave up 82 hits and 16 home runs in only 66.2 innings in the big leagues that season.
At age 24, things took a turn for the better for both Radke and Slowey. Radke went 20-10 with a 3.87 ERA in 1997, pitching 239.2 innings and became a staple in the Twins rotation for years to come. After averaging 2.3 and 2.2 BB/9 at age 22 and 23, Radke would go on to become one of the best control pitchers in the game, never giving up more than 2.0 BB/9 again.
In 2008 a 24-year-old Slowey finished 12-11 with a 3.99 ERA in 27 starts with the Twins. His WHIP dropped to 1.154 that season, and he gave up only 22 home runs in 160.1 innings. He would only give up 1.4 BB/9 over his 5 years with the Twins, and would probably still be a part of this rotation if not for injuries and a falling-out with the club in 2011.
Hendriks is a similar type of pitcher to Radke and Slowey, relying on his control and savvy to get hitters out. After getting his feet wet a little in 2011 and then spending half a season with the Twins in 2012, he could be headed for a solid season in 2013. He also pitched 191.2 innings between Minnesota and Rochester last season, a career high, after battling some injuries of his own in recent years. He has a real shot to prove he belongs in spring training this season, and the Twins need him to break through more than ever and fill out a rotation full of question marks right now.
Follow Twins Rubes on Twitter @twinsrubes.