2012 has clearly not been a great season for the Minnesota Twins, and starting pitcher Nick Blackburn was definitely not immune with a 7.39 ERA over 19 starts (98.2 innings) with the Twins. He did pitch solidly in seven starts for Triple-A Rochester, with a 3-1 record and 2.70 ERA , which led to the Twins bringing him back up to the big leagues later in the summer.
Blackburn was ultimately outrighted back to Rochester and off Minnesota’s 40-man roster in August, putting his future with the team in serious doubt to say the least. General manager Terry Ryan has said the team is willing to go on without him, but Blackburn will be a non-roster invitee to spring training next year and seems likely to get a shot to reclaim a spot in the Twins’ starting rotation for 2013.
It has been a fairly quick fall for Blackburn, who went 11-11 with a 4.05 ERA over 33 starts (193.2 innings) in 2008 and followed that up with almost a carbon copy (11-11, 4.03 ERA, 33 starts, 205.2 innings) in 2009. But the wheels began to fall off in 2010, when he went 10-12 with a 5.42 ERA in 28 appearances (26 starts), and continued in 2011 when he went 7-10 with a 4.49 ERA over 26 starts (148.1 innings).
Injuries have also started to become an issue for Blackburn over the last couple years, with forearm, shoulder and quad issues among the maladies that have bothered him. In what seems like another slow injury evaluation by the Twins’ medical staff, he was originally diagnosed with a right forearm strain last season that was later found to be an entrapped nerve that required surgery to repair.
But that does not excuse Blackburn’s lackluster pitching over the last three years, which coincided with his signing a four-year, $14 million deal after the second of his solid seasons in 2009. That may be a factor as Blackburn may be putting extra pressure on himself to justify the contract, but he was simply not worth that kind of money at the time of the deal and his recent performance has proven that true in a big way.
Blackburn is due to make $5.5 million next season in the final year of that contract, which also has an $8 million team option for 2014 that surely will not be picked up. The Twins will owe him next season’s salary regardless of his status with the team, so they would probably like to see him turn things around and make the team since his trade value is non-existent right now.
Making the team, and ideally the starting rotation, would be a good first step toward Blackburn regaining his status as even close to an average major league pitcher. If he can pitch well during the early part of the season, his trade value could climb as teams that expect to contend next season look to add pitching close to July’s non-waiver trade deadline. At that point his status as a potential free agent after 2013 could actually benefit the Twins, as bringing Blackburn in would not require a significant long-term investment for an acquiring team.
Of course all of that is a moot point if Blackburn arrives in Fort Myers next spring and struggles, then Minnesota would be forced to cut ties and essentially eat the $5.5 million they owe him with no chance for even a partial return on that investment. It’s safe to say other teams would have little interest in Blackburn if he can’t crack the Twins’ starting rotation, with all the questions they have there heading into next season. That said, being able to bring Blackburn in at a much lower salary or on a low-risk minor league contract could open up some possibilities for him to continue his career elsewhere.
At this point the Twins really can’t get anything of value in a trade for Blackburn, but if another team somehow came calling and offered any kind of minor leaguer for him the team should absolutely take it. Any team entering into trade talks would be smart to demand that the Twins pay most, if not all, of his 2013 salary before considering giving up anything of value beyond a bag of baseballs. But it would be worth it for the Twins to rid themselves of perhaps the biggest mistake of previous general manager Bill Smith’s tenure.