Slowey to the Rescue?
First off, I'm a little surprised by the timing. I honestly thought that with Ortiz's strong start, Twins management would take a little more time with this. However, it really has been apparent that the Twins field staff was getting more and more disappointed with Ortiz's performance, and was itching for a change to be made. Considering that Ortiz hasn't had one of those strong starts for the entire month of May, however, I certainly understand the decision.
This move is also likely to make the Twins a stronger team overall. Ortiz's position in the rotation has been a black hole for the entire month of May, but he usually has at least a few solid innings when he comes in to pitch. If the Twins can use him for 2-3 innings instead of 5-6 when he's in the game, there's at least a better chance that he'll avoid the big inning. Further, the bullpen right now contains three guys -- Julio DePaula, Carmen Cali, and Jason Miller -- who probably don't belong at the big league level just yet. There's room to move Ortiz there without displacing someone who the Twins can't afford to move out.
The problem is that Ortiz doesn't have a lot of experience in the bullpen. In 220 Major League games, he's started 200. His 20 career relief appearances all game in 2004 with the Angels, when he also made 14 starts. He had a reasonably solid season that year, posting a 4.43 ERA in 128 innings -- and the Twins would probably take that kind of performance from him in the long relief role.
If the Twins made the move, I would guess that Julio DePaula would be the first guy down out of the bullpen, with Carmen Cali being sent down when Joe Mauer was activated to cut the bullpen down to 11 pitchers. The bigger problem is going to be what happens when both Glen Perkins and Dennys Reyes come back from their injuries. One of them will be able to replace Jason Miller -- but the other will not have a place in the 'pen unless the Twins expanded again to 12, which they don't particularly want to do. The week or two that Ortiz spends in the bullpen before the second lefty comes off the DL (Perkins or Reyes, whoever is last) would probably be an audition to keep his job.
Now, what about Slowey? It's beyond dispute that he's having a great AAA season. It's also beyond dispute that he moved through the organization last year almost as meteorically as did Matt Garza. Slowey impressed everyone this spring with his ability to get batters out. Nevertheless, if you've read much of this blog you probably have noticed that I'm not a fan of the idea of bringing Slowey to the big leagues this season. The situation that the Twins find themselves in, however, requires a re-analysis of this position.
In an ideal world, the Twins would have seen either Sidney Ponson or Ramon Ortiz pitch well enough to hold down a spot in the rotation all season. That would have opened up a place for Scott Baker or Glen Perkins in the rotation, while uber-prospects Matt Garza and Slowey could have marinated in AAA for a year before bursting onto the scene next season. That would have given them a chance to work on their pitching skills at the level right below the big leagues (and neither Garza nor Slowey had much experience at all at AAA). That, in turn, would have meant that they had a little less to learn at the Major League level, so their arbitration clocks weren't running while they were learning things that could have been learned in AAA. This, to me, is just smart asset-management.
But of course, this is not an ideal world. The Twins have so far seen Carlos Silva pitch reasonably well to hold down his spot in the rotation, but both Ponson and Ortiz have flamed out. Scott Baker has pitched very well in AAA and deservedly has been given a chance to hold down one of those spots. Glen Perkins might have had a chance to get the other spot, but of course he's hurt. That changes the calculus. The Twins really have no choice at this point but to make a move -- and if you're going to make a move, you might as well make the one that gives you the best chance to win. Kevin Slowey has demonstrated with the Red Wings that he's the best minor league pitcher in the system, at least right now. It's time, then, to pull the trigger -- and I'll support any such decision to do that.
Here's what I hope doesn't happen: when Matt Garza was called up last season, Twins Nation viewed him as a savior. He fizzled. He just wasn't ready to pitch effectively at a fourth level in the Twins system in one year. He had some problems with spotting his pitches, and couldn't seem to get anybody out with anything other than his fastball. He was NOT yet ready to be a savior. I hope that Twins fans don't make the same mistake with Slowey -- it's exceedingly rare for a young pitcher to just step in and be great. Francisco Liriano did it. Jered Weaver did it last year with the Angels. It certainly can happen -- but it should not be expected from the fan base.
I think that Kevin Slowey will succeed at the big league level. He has a different skill set than Matt Garza, a skill set that should translate effectively to the Major Leagues. I strongly suspect that once he's in the rotation, he won't give that spot up. I do not expect him to be the next coming of Johan Santana -- or even of Brad Radke -- this season. An ERA of around 4.00 is probably the most likely scenario, and I'll take that. I just don't expect him to be a savior.
UPDATE: Joe Christensen says that Ramon Ortiz has been informed he's moving to the bullpen, and the Twins will be calling "someone" up to start Friday's game. That "someone," says Joe (and I completely agree) is going to be Kevin Slowey. That means that Jesse Crain will soon be transferred to the 60-Day DL to make room for Slowey on the 40-man roster.