COMMENTARY | In 2013, the Minnesota Twins had the worst starting rotation in Major League Baseball. However, the Twins have had their share of great pitchers, which includes three pitchers that have won Cy Young Awards.
I decided to look at what a rotation of the greatest pitchers in Twins history would look like, which is a continuation of a series that I started when I looked at the greatest first basemen in Twins history. This will compare the stats for pitchers only when they played for the Twins.
5. Frank "Sweet Music" Viola (1982-1989)
When your fifth starter is a World Series Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner, that can make for a very special rotation. However, Viola's career with the Twins was relatively short and he had only two truly dominant seasons and another that was very good.
In 1982, Viola made his major league debut. He struggled his first two seasons before going 18-12 with a 3.21 ERA to lead the Twins to a surprising .500 finish in 1984. He took a step back in 1985-86, as did the Twins, before putting it all together in 1987.
That year, Viola went 17-10 with a 2.90 ERA to lead the league. He also won twice in the World Series, including Game 7 on three days' rest to win MVP for the series. The next year, Viola went 24-7 with a 2.64 ERA to become just the second Cy Young Award winner in Twins history. Following the season, the Twins and Viola got into a bitter contract dispute, which eventually led to Viola being traded July 31, 1989, to the New York Mets for Rick Aguilera and Kevin Tapani, who ended up being key players when the Twins won the World Series again in 1991. For his Twins career, Viola went 112-93 with a 3.86 ERA in 1772 2/3 innings.
4. Brad Radke (1995-2006)
Radke was never dominant but was a consistently good pitcher throughout his career.
He didn't make his Twins debut until 1995. He led the league in home runs allowed his first two seasons, which was a consistent problem for him in his career. Radke more than offset his flyball tendencies with impeccable control. He walked just 1.6 batters per nine innings in his career.
Radke had a career-high 20 wins in 1997 for a horrible Twins team that won just 68 games on the season. Radke didn't experience a winning season until 2001, but then he helped the Twins win four division titles in five seasons to finish his career.
He will forever be remembered fondly by Twins fans for winning Games 1 and 5 on the road against the favored Oakland A's in 2002, which was the last time the Twins won a playoff series. In 2006, Radke gamely pitched through a tear in his labrum for most of the season before the pain became too much. It was then discovered that he also was pitching with a stress fracture in his shoulder at the beginning of September. Radke still managed to return to make one last start before the playoffs and then one start in a playoff series the Twins lost to the A's. Radke then retired with a career record of 148-139 with a 4.22 ERA in 2,451 innings pitched. He's third all-time in Twins history in wins and innings pitched.
3. Jim Kaat (1961-1973)
Kaat also was rarely dominant, but he was consistently good for an even longer period of time. Kaat actually started his career with the Washington Senators in 1959 before they moved to Minnesota and became the Twins in 1961. In that season, Kaat finally became a full-time starter for the Twins and pitched at least 200 innings 10 times in 12 seasons.
While he had good control -- although not as good as Radke's -- and got a lot of ground balls, he helped himself with things outside of pitching more than any other Twins pitcher. Kaat had 13 Gold Gloves as a Twin and 17 in his career. He also is far and away the all-time Twins leader in hits, home runs and RBIs as a pitcher.
Kaat also is the Twins' all-time leader in wins with 189, innings pitched at 2,959 1/3 and games started. His career with the Twins came to an unceremonious end when he was picked up off the waiver wire by the Chicago White Sox when Twins owner Clark Griffith was trying to save a few bucks.
Kaat's best season came in 1966 when he went 25-13 with a 2.75 ERA and a league-leading 304 2/3 innings pitched. He had a great case for a Cy Young Award that year, but this was the last season when only one award was given for both seasons and the Los Angeles Dodgers' Sandy Koufax had one of the best seasons in baseball history.
It was not the first time Kaat had lost out to Koufax. In the 1965 World Series, Kaat and Koufax matched up three times, with Koufax winning two of them, including his famous shutout in Game 7 on two days' rest.
2 Johan Santana (2000-2007)
For 4 1/2 seasons, there was no better starting pitcher in Twins history than Santana. And for that same time period, there was no better starting pitcher in baseball. However, the brevity of his career with the Twins prevented him from being the Twins' best starting pitcher.
The Twins acquired Santana from the Houston Astros through the Rule V draft in 1999. Technically, the Twins traded for him when they traded their Rule V pick, Jared Camp, to the Florida Marlins for Santana and cash, but this deal was prearranged prior to the draft. The Twins kept Santana on the major league roster in 2000 so they didn't have to give him back to the Astros.
Santana struggled in 2000 as a long reliever, but then was able to develop his famous changeup in the minor leagues in 2001. He was a reliever and spot starter in 2002 and the first half of 2003, but finally was made a full-time starter in July of 2003. He went 8-2 with a 3.22 ERA the rest of the season as the Twins made a second-half run to claim their second straight division title.
From 2004 through 2007, Santana was the best pitcher in baseball. He won two Cy Young Awards (2004, 2006) and should have won in 2003 and had a good case for another in 2007. He led the AL in WHIP all four years. He led the AL in strikeouts three times, ERA twice and innings pitched once. He also won a Gold Glove in 2007. In 2006, he won the pitchers' triple crown when he led all of baseball in wins, ERA and strikeouts.
With that string of dominance, the Twins could no longer afford to pay Santana while they continued to play home games at the Metrodome. So once again the Twins looked to the Mets to trade away a former Cy Young Award winner the Twins could no longer afford. Unfortunately, this trade didn't go as well as the Twins acquired Carlos Gomez, Philip Humber, Kevin Mulvey and Deolis Guerra on Groundhog Day 2008. When he was traded away, Santana was 93-44 with a 3.22 ERA in 1,308 2/3 innings for his career.
1. Bert Blyleven (1970-1975, 1985-1988)
Blyleven is the only Twins starting pitcher to combine dominance with longevity, although it took two stints with the Twins to do it. He still is the only starting pitcher that is in the Baseball Hall of Fame wearing a Twins cap on his plaque.
Blyleven was a hard-throwing right-hander with one of the greatest curve balls in baseball history. Using primarily just the two pitches for his career, Blyleven managed to strike out 3,701 batters, which is the fifth-most in the history of the game despite him pitching in an era with far fewer strikeouts than we see today. He has the Twins record for strikeouts with 2,035 and shutouts with 29. He also is second in wins and innings pitched.
Blyleven made his debut in June 1970 and was very good right from the start. His best season came in 1973, when he went 20-17 with a 2.52 ERA in 325 innings pitched. From 1971 through 1976, Blyleven averaged 16 wins and 291 innings pitched with a 2.76 ERA. Then in June 1976, Blyleven was traded to the Texas Rangers along with Danny Thompson for Roy Smalley, Mike Cubbage, Jim Gideon and Bill Singer.
In August 1985, the Twins sent Jay Bell, Curt Wardle, Jim Weaver and Jim Yett to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for Blyleven, who turned out to be a key player for the Twins' first World Series championship team in 1987.
Blyleven went 3-1 with a 3.42 ERA in the 1987 postseason. He actually pitched better than Viola in the World Series but only had two starts. Blyleven was warming up in the bullpen in Game 7 when Viola had given up a couple early runs. If he had been brought into the game and the Twins still rallied to win, Blyleven might have been the Series MVP instead of Viola. That could have meant Blyleven not having to wait so long to be voted into the Hall of Fame.
Darin McGilvra has been a professional sportswriter since 1997 and has been a Twins follower since Kirby Puckett's breakout season of 1986. He has been published in The Californian, a newspaper covering Riverside County, and numerous other websites.
Follow Darin on Twitter at @SoCalTwinsfan.
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