The End of Nick Blackburn

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.

Nick Blackburn

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?


6 Replies to “The End of Nick Blackburn”

  1. I just don’t think the Twins will release NB, for better or worse he’s going to be around this year and next. Maybe we can send him to AAA to become the next R.A. Dickey, teach him the Knuckler, or a screw ball, or a split change, a palm ball or the ephus pitch. something. He doesn’t miss bats, even in AAA he doesn’t miss bats. We’re doomed. 6+ million dollars doomed.

  2. I don’t see him being released this year, at least until there’s a resolution to the Liriano and Pavano situations. I’m also fine with keeping him around to finish the season. It’s not like he’s going to be getting innings some hot up-and-comer should be getting. Liam Hendriks? The Twins still clearly believe he’s best off getting more AAA innings. When that changes, there will be opportunities for him to get Big League starts, with or without Blackburn around. Who else is he blocking from getting a look in Minnesota?

    You’re right… the cost is sunk. So I would just ride out the year and bring him to ST in February and see how he stacks up with whatever options Terry Ryan has assembled at that point. I don’t suggest Ryan should assume Blackburn is going to be a fixture in the rotation when he plots out his offseason plans for acquiring pitchers, but you’re paying him whether you get a look at him in ST or not, so get a look at him. You’re no worse off releasing him April 1 next year than if you do it now.

  3. An object lesson when considering the future of Scott Diamond, I hope.

    Meanwhile, I agree with JC on Blackburn. Aside from Diamond, there are no other pitchers currently on the roster who can be counted on to fill a rotation spot next season. Even if Terry Ryan manages to pick up two quality starters in the off-season, there still should be a couple spots in the rotation that will be essentially open jobs. Might as well put Blackburn in the mix with the kids and NRI cast-offs in camp next spring.

  4. While I don’t disagree that it may be possible to see some other version of Nick Blackburn next year, given his recent track record, and inability to get professional hitters out, I’d hate for him to make the team out of ST and then quickly explode. The Twins would undoubtedly string him along for 5-7 starts hoping he’d rebound, and by the time they cut him loose he’s already cost the team 3 or 4 games.
    I’m not even confident he could rebound in a bullpen role ala Glen Perkins or Brian Duensing. Given his inability to strike batters out, and mediocre stuff at best, even a couple extra MPH he’d enjoy as a reliever would only flatten out his sinker.
    So while there isn’t really anyone to give his innings to that would be better than Blackburn, there is not a lot of value in keeping him around. Maybe, like they did in 2011, they’d use this opportunity to reward an organizational player, like Brian Dinkelman, with some MLB service time.

  5. I’m not all that confident that Blackburn will be any better next year; but, over a span of 7 games or so, I don’t think the difference between him and a likely/replacement-level starter would be 3 or 4 games.

    As awful as Jason Marquis was with the Twins, for instance, the team was 2-5 in his starts, and lost one of those games by just 1 run. And as good as he’s been for the Padres, they are just 5-5 in his starts for them. You know, if Blackburn’s replacement next spring is the next version of Marquis, or perhaps a kid just up from the farm, what are the chances that the Twins will be winning 5-6 of that guy’s first seven starts? Or that such a replacement will pitch well enough to give the team a chance to win 5+ of those games?

  6. Frightwig, you do well to call me on some hyperbole in my recent comment. While it is unlikely that Blackburn is 3-4 wins worse than a replacement level starter in a handful of starts, he’s given up 5 or more earned runs 8 times, and 3 or less just 3 times in his 15 starts. He currently sits at 2 wins below replacement, so 3-4 was way over shooting. We’ll see what happens going forward. If he pitches for the Twins next year I’ll buy you a beer.