Yesterday afternoon 32,261 baseball fans were treated to a 4.1 inning performance from Nick Blackburn in which more batters hit home runs (2) than struck out (1). Before he was yanked midway through the 5th inning, Blackburn faced 23 batters, and gave up 10 hits and 8 runs (all earned). Unfortunately for Twins fans, this marked Blackburn’s 8th start of 2012 in which he gave up 5 or more earned runs and failed to get through the 6th inning. In fact, Blackburn has pitched into the 7th inning just once in 2012, just last week when he went 6.2 innings and gave up just a single earned run, his best start since July 15th of 2011 when he was able to go seven full innings without giving up any runs, despite being tagged with a 2-1 loss.
Originally drafted in the 29th round of the 2001 amateur draft out of Seminole State College, Blackburn made his MLB debut as a September call-up in 2007, going 0-2 in 11.2 innings spread out over 6 relief appearances. In 2008 he made the team coming out of Spring Training and has been a perennial fixture in the Twins rotation since then. Blackburn pitched fairly well in 2008 and 2009, posting ERAs just a blip over 4 in back to back seasons, and averaged almost 200 innings a year. Coming off of his 2009 season the Twins inked Blackburn to a 4 year $14 million dollar extension that included an $8 million dollar team option for 2014. Since that time he has struggled to stay healthy and seen his ERA increase, despite playing in the pitcher friendly confines of Target Field for half of his starts.
2010 was a down year for Blackburn as his ERA rose to a career high 5.24 due in large part to career highs in HR/9 and BB/9 and a career low 3.8 SO/9. In 2011 Blackburn rebounded early in the season and had a 3.64 ERA through the end of June and looked like he had finally become the pitcher the Twins had hoped he would be. He was striking out almost 1 more batter per 9 than he was in 2010 and his BB/9 were down to a minuscule .84 walks per nine innings. However, Blackburn fell off significantly after the All-Star break and was shut down at the end of August and never made another appearance in 2011, finishing the year with just 148.1 innings pitched and an ERA of 4.49.
Heading into 2012 the Twins were hopeful that Nick Blackburn would return from the arm issues that cost him the end of the 2011 season and once again be the dependable innings eater he was in 2008, 2009, and even the first half of 2011. Unfortunately things have been anything but smooth for Blackburn in 2012. His ERA is 7.46, he’s giving up more home runs than any other time in his career, and opposing teams are just spraying the ball all over the field against him. Opponents are hitting .327/.368/.566 against him, good enough for an OPS of .934, the same OPS as Melky Cabrera. Definitely not a recipe for success.
The Twins owe Blackburn another $2.9 million for the rest of 2012, and another $5.5 million in 2013, and even if they’re willing to eat a hefty portion of that salary, there are just not a lot of teams looking for a struggling 5th starter who cannot miss bats and hasn’t pitched a full season in two years.
The reality is that Nick Blackburn is a sunk cost. The Twins best option at this point is to simply cut him loose. They are a better team when he is not pitching for them. Pay him the remaining $8.4 million left on his deal and invest the rest of his innings into some other young arms. Is there even another option?