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2014 will be pivotal for Twins' RHP Gibson

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The Tommy John rehabilitation is over. The hoopla surrounding his big league debut has passed.

Kyle Gibson is ready to get to the big leagues once again — and stay there.

Minnesota Twins’ pitchers and catchers are due to report to the franchise’s spring training complex in Fort Myers, Fla., on Feb. 16. At that time, Gibson, a 26-year-old Greenfield-Central graduate, will embark on the biggest spring training of his professional career as he competes for the No. 5 spot in the Twins’ starting rotation.

“He’s a big piece of the future of this club and we got him through (the 2013 season) healthy which was great,” said Terry Ryan, Minnesota’s Executive Vice President and General Manager. “Now we’re hoping that he can take the next step — make this club and get to the point where he’ll give us a chance every time he takes the mound.”

After throwing 368 and a third innings over the better part of four years and overcoming “Tommy John” reconstructive surgery on his throwing elbow in September of 2011, Gibson made his major league debut on June 29, 2013.

A six-foot-6 right-hander, Gibson lasted 51 innings in the big leagues, compiling a 2-4 record with a 6.53 ERA in 10 starts before being sent down to Triple-A Rochester (N.Y.) on Aug. 19. Because of a predetermined innings limit, Gibson was shut down on Sept. 2 having thrown a combined 152 and two-thirds innings in 2013 between Rochester and the big leagues.

At this time last year, Gibson had fulfilled his goal of simply being healthy enough to compete for a spot on the Twins’ staff. Now, the 2009 first-round pick will battle a handful of other pitchers for the only open spot in Minnesota’s rotation.

“Competition is always a good thing in my mind. I think it makes everybody better, and I have a lot of respect for the guys I’ll be competing against,” Gibson said. “I want everybody to throw well and I want to get picked at the end of spring training. That’s the plan.”

When Gibson was called up to the bigs last June, the former Missouri Tiger joined a squad that wound up losing at least 96 games for the third year in a row. The Twins’ rotation posted the second-worst ERA in the American League for the third consecutive year and the club’s 2013 offense ranked near the bottom of the AL in runs scored, total bases, on-base percentage and on-base plus slugging percentage.

And when he actually toed the rubber, Gibson’s performance in the majors was uncharacteristic of his solid minor league numbers.

During his brief time with Minnesota, Gibson’s ERA (2.92 to 6.53), walks per nine innings (2.9 to 3.5) and WHIP (1.16 to 1.75) rose from his 2013 numbers at Rochester, while his strikeouts per nine innings rate declined from 7.7 to 5.1.

“Obviously, last year was a lot of fun and a learning experience for me. I feel like it definitely prepared me for this year. By all means, it didn’t go how I wanted it to go because I wanted a little more time up with the Twins, but that’s part of the learning curve. Overall, if I throw stats aside, I’m fairly pleased with how I progressed last year,” Gibson said. “But, baseball is a game of numbers and I feel like I can definitely do better.”

Gibson took note of the numbers, and he also heeded the advice given to him by the people in Minnesota directly invested in his success — particularly Twins’ manager Ron Gardenhire, pitching coach Rick Anderson and Ryan, who recently spent time with his young pitcher on the team’s Winter Caravan.

“His stuff was fine; it wasn’t as crisp as it can be or will be. He got deep into counts, he got behind in counts and unfortunately his pitch total got up there quickly. I don’t think he attacked as much as he probably should, can or will. That’s the only concern. I thought he pitched somewhat timid,” Ryan said. “Some of it was because of his injury, coming off that. His first time in the league, that’s another issue. It’s tough to do this up here as is, but he’s coming of that other stuff and he’s a rookie doing it — and we were struggling and couldn’t score runs.

“All in all, I can tell you that I am happy with where he is, but he can be a lot better than what we saw. I think everybody knows that.”

Everything Ryan mentioned was echoed by Gibson, who was also victim of old-fashioned bad luck at times. The batting average of major league hitters off Gibson on balls in play (.350) was significantly higher than the American League average of .298. Even when Gibson was ahead in the count, opposing batters hit .309 off of him, over 100 points higher than the AL average of .205.

The aforementioned balls-in-play and count averages tend to whittle down from the extremes with larger sample sizes, and that should especially be true with Gibson because his three primary pitches — a slider, changeup and a low-to-mid 90s sinking fastball, are rated as ‘plus’ pitches by scouts — an assessment Ryan endorsed, too.

To borrow a popular sporting cliché, Gibson simply wants to control what he can control — stay ahead in the count, be aggressive and make opposing hitters swing at the pitches he wants them to swing at. That logic applies to supremely talented players like Detroit Tigers’ first baseman Miguel Cabrera, the two-time defending American League MVP, too.

“You’re going to face hitters that are on a hot day. If you catch Miguel Cabrera on the wrong day, you might not be able to get him out if you face him 15 times,” Gibson said. “At the same time, if you’re facing him in 1-0, 2-0 and 2-1 counts the whole day, then yeah, he’s going to have a chance to get a lot of hits because he knows the ball is going to be pretty close to the (strike) zone — if not in the middle of the zone. That’s a situation I put myself in quite a bit.”

Jim Callis, a reporter for MLB.com who has been covering prospects and the draft for over 25 years, has followed Gibson since his senior year at G-C. Callis said Gibson’s struggles during his first go-around in the majors aren’t a “huge concern” but also noted that more is expected of the righty.

“I think you sometimes see that with a lot of rookie pitchers — regardless of whether guys are talented prospects or even guys who aren’t — where you get to the big leagues and you try to be a little too fine,” Callis said. “Instead of doing what got you there, you try to make the perfect pitch and you fall behind in counts.”

The top four of Minnesota’s rotation appears set with four veterans — holdovers Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey were joined by free agent signees Phil Hughes and Ricky Nolasco this offseason.

Sam Deduno, Scott Diamond and Vance Worley — all of whom are older than Gibson and sport career ERAs north of four — represent Gibson’s primary competition for the fifth spot. Andrew Albers was thought to be included in that group, but the left-hander will reportedly pitch in Korea this season.

“I wouldn’t say it’s his to lose because he didn’t perform last year. … I think if you’re the Twins, you’d like to see him in that role because you have some expectations of Kyle and he’s got a higher ceiling than Deduno or Diamond,” Callis said of Gibson’s chances to win the No. 5 spot in the rotation. “Frankly, at this point, I know they brought in Nolasco and Hughes and they’ve got Correia and Pelfrey, but I mean it’s not like you have a slam-dunk ace in that rotation.

“But if he doesn’t make the Opening Day rotation and went to Triple-A, I think he’d get the call (back to the majors) pretty quickly.”

Whether or not he’d be OK with a Triple-A assignment is tough question for Gibson to answer. After 72 starts in the minors and countless bus trips around the continental United States, he’s ready to establish himself with Minnesota and ease the burden that comes along with being a first-round pick. But all he can really do is pitch as well as he can and let management make the decision.

“At this point in my career, I mean would I be happy with it? Absolutely not. I want to be in the big leagues. … Obviously, I don’t want to go back to the minor leagues,” said Gibson, who will turn 27 on Oct. 23.  “But my best response is at this point in my career, I have no control over that. Even if I do pitch well, there are business circumstances that happen that could send me back to the minors.

“… If you have four guys that are throwing really well and I’m not the guy that is chosen, if I just sit there and pout on it and go to Triple-A and don’t use it as motivation and a learning experience, well then when my number gets called the next time around, I’m not going to be ready. That’s kind of the tough part of that question is everybody is going to be competing for this job, wants to be in the big leagues and is ‘not OK’ with coming back to the minors.”

Regardless of whether he’s in the minors or majors, it’s fair to wonder if Gibson — who will be three years removed from Tommy John surgery in September — will be issued another innings limit. Gibson said he was told he’s essentially in the clear, and plans to be able to pitch 180 to 200 innings.

Ryan didn’t commit to an innings limit, but alluded to the club keeping a keen eye on Gibson’s innings total.

“Once we get into the latter part of the season, we’ll see where we’re at. We certainly don’t want to abuse it and have any setbacks, but I think he’s pretty well free and clear,” Ryan said. “If we close in on September and he’s above some of that area where you’re looking to end up at, we might have to keep an eye on that some.”

It’s a safe bet that at some point in the 2014 campaign, Gibson will see considerable time with the Twins. The club is heavily invested in his future and would love to see him put it all together.

“I can’t give you enough superlatives about this lad,” Ryan said. “Now it’s just a matter of us moving forward and him taking that God-given ability that he has, the size that he has and the mechanics he has, and putting it all together and putting it to use.”

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