Twins' Top 5 left-handed starters: Park's take

June 1st, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only.

Here is Do-Hyoung Park's ranking of the top 5 left-handed starting pitchers in Twins history, since the franchise relocated to Minnesota in 1961. Next week: Relievers.

Twins' All-Time Team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | DH | RHP

1) (2000-07)
Key fact: Holds the Twins' record for most strikeouts in a season with 265

This might have been the toughest decision for a No. 1 spot in this whole series. Do you value the remarkable three-year peak of Santana, who provided arguably the most dominant single-game performances for a left-hander in club history and was virtually untouchable at the height of his Minnesota career? Or do you go with Jim Kaat, who pitched in a less offensively charged era but was a consistently stingy workhorse for more than a decade? There's no wrong answer here.

While previous orderings of these lists have valued longevity to a greater extent, you can't really go wrong here by picking Santana, who quickly blossomed into one of the best pitchers in baseball toward the end of his eight-year stretch with the Twins thanks to the filthy changeup that baffled hitters throughout his career. The gold standard of pitching performances in recent Minnesota history remains Santana's gem on Aug. 19, 2007, when he struck out 17 Texas Rangers without a walk over eight innings to set the club's single-game strikeout record and send the Metrodome crowd into a frenzy.

"I've had a handful of opportunities to catch a no-hitter," catcher Mike Redmond said after that performance. "I've had a couple of one-hitters and a few two-hitters. When I walked off the field in the second inning, I thought: 'This could be it. This guy's got some amazing stuff today.'"

Santana only later got that no-hitter with the Mets, but in his time with the Twins, he led the American League in strikeouts and posted sub-1.00 WHIP marks in three consecutive seasons from 2004-06 and finished in the top seven of AL Cy Young Award voting in his last five seasons in Minnesota, winning the award in both '04 and '06. Likely one of the best Rule 5 Draft selections in Major League history, Santana quickly rose to ace status in Minnesota and played a significant role on the pitching staffs of the '02, '03, '04 and '06 clubs that won division titles before he was traded to the Mets before the '08 season.

2) (1959-60 Senators, 1961-73 Twins)
Key fact: Started the most games (422) and pitched the most innings (2,959 1/3) in Twins history

All that leaves Kaat to claim a close second on this list. Thanks to his consistency and longevity, he's the Twins' all-time leader in several pitching categories, including starts and innings, as mentioned above, and clocks in at second in complete games (133), shutouts (23) and strikeouts (1,824). He's also second only to Bert Blyleven in career fWAR with the Twins (53.8) thanks to a lengthy career that spanned parts of two seasons with the Washington Senators before relocation, followed by parts of 13 seasons with the Twins during which he won double-digit games in all but one campaign and claimed 12 of his 16 consecutive Gold Glove Awards.

Though Kaat's best season came in 1966, when he led the AL with 41 starts, 25 wins and 304 2/3 innings pitched, the Twins reached their peak one season earlier, in '65, when a well-rounded pitching staff and powerful offense led them to their first World Series berth since relocating to the Upper Midwest. Kaat made three starts in that Fall Classic, headlined by a complete-game gem in Game 2 in which he allowed only one run on seven hits as he outdueled Sandy Koufax for the victory. He did take the loss in both Games 5 and 7, though, and made one final postseason start for the Twins in the 1970 AL Championship Series, when he took the loss against the Orioles in Game 3.

Kaat remains a special assistant to the general manager in the Twins' organization and also serves as an analyst on several FOX Sports North television broadcasts. Though he wasn't elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on the BBWAA ballot, he fell two votes short of the 12 needed for induction via the Golden Era committee when it last voted in 2014. The committee will vote again in December.

3) (1982-89)
Key fact: Was named MVP of the 1987 World Series

It took some time for "Sweet Music" to really find his groove on the mound for the Twins, but he found his elite form at a pretty darn good time. That was in 1987, of course, when the Twins overcame a brutal road record to win the AL West and made a stunning run all the way to the club's first World Series championship. After a handful of solid seasons with ERAs in the 4's and 5's, Viola dropped all the way to 2.90 in that '87 campaign before he stepped up to serve as the clutch ace the team needed in the World Series against the Cardinals.

The former second-round Draft pick twirled eight innings of one-run ball in Minneapolis in Game 1 and rebounded from a tough Game 4 start with eight more stingy innings in Game 7, allowing two runs on six hits before he was lifted for Jeff Reardon, who finished off the winner-take-all game in front of a crowd of 55,376 at the Metrodome. Viola won the World Series MVP Award, but his best actually came one season later, when he won the AL Cy Young Award on the strength of a 24-7 record and a 2.64 ERA in 255 1/3 innings. Though he was shipped to the Mets in a 1989 blockbuster, that trade also proved crucial to the Twins' run back to the peak of baseball in 1991, when trade products Kevin Tapani and Rick Aguilera played important roles in the club's second World Series championship.

4) (2005-06, '08-12)
Key fact: Finished third in AL Rookie of the Year Award voting in 2006

What if? What if Liriano's tantalizing rookie season hadn't been cut short by Tommy John surgery? What if he'd been able to carry that momentum through the rest of his early career? What if he returned from that procedure with the same strikeout ability that wowed Twins fans in the same way that Santana did in that '06 season? We'll never know. That 12-3 record, 2.16 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 121 innings as a rookie rightfully got Twins Territory excited about the prospect of having dominant co-aces for the playoff run. Instead, Liriano missed the postseason, sat out all of '07 and returned in a solid abbreviated season in '08 but couldn't find consistency through the rest of his time with the Twins. Though he once again flashed dominance in 2010 with a 3.62 ERA and 201 strikeouts, he otherwise posted ERAs in the 5's and was traded to the White Sox in 2012. After finding success in Pittsburgh, Liriano switched to a bullpen role in '19 and should still find work somewhere once baseball resumes.

5) (1998-2003)
Key fact: Threw the fourth no-hitter in team history on Sept. 11, 1999

Milton was consistent, and he was a workhorse. Following his arrival in Minnesota before Spring Training in 1998, Milton made at least 29 starts in each of the next five seasons with ERAs generally in the mid-4's. He had his best season in 2001, when he rode a 3.73 ERA in the first half to his lone All-Star nod and threw a career-high 220 2/3 innings. Notably, he plays an important role in the fruitful Chuck Knoblauch trade tree after he originally arrived from the Yankees alongside Brian Buchanan, Cristian Guzman and Danny Mota in the deal that sent the embattled Knoblauch to the Bronx. When Milton was later traded to the Phillies following the '03 campaign, he netted a return of Bobby Korecky, Nick Punto and Carlos Silva.

Honorable mention
Jim Merritt didn't have a consistent spot in the starting rotation for the early Twins teams following relocation to Minnesota, but he typically pitched effectively when called upon, posting a 3.03 ERA in four seasons and a pair of strong relief appearances in the '65 World Series against the Dodgers. ... Geoff Zahn almost never struck anyone out, but he still carved out a strong 13-year career pitching to contact and had a 3.90 ERA in four seasons with the Twins from 1977-80.