The Twins' pitching improved enough to make the postseason in 2017, but the team will need an even greater improvement for the team to become a legitimate contender in 2018 and beyond.
Luckily, the Twins' 2017 season helped lay the groundwork for the future, with solid years from youngsters like Jose Berrios, Trevor Hildenburger, and Alan Busenitz. Lets look at how each pitcher did in 2017 to get a better picture of the strengths and weaknesses of the team going into the 2017-2018 offseason.
Ervin Santana is not an ace. There, I said it. He certainly had a good year, pitching 211.1 innings over 33 starts with a 3.28 ERA while posting a 7.1 K/9 compared to 2.6 BB/9. Those numbers look solid, and they are, but Santana was also very lucky this season. Hitters had just a .245 BABIP against Santana, well below his career mark of .282, which is likely to regress to the mean next year. Santana also posted a 4.46 PIF and 4.77 xFIP, further suggesting Santana's numbers this year were in part due to some combination and luck and the Twins's improved defense and positioning behind him.
Expecting regression to the mean and regression because of his age, Santana still projects as a solid #2 or #3 starter next season, one capable of 200 innings and a 3.50-3.75 ERA. Santana is not and should not be a #1 starter, and for the team to become perennial contenders again, they will need a starter to overshadow Santana's solid numbers.
Grade: B+. A good season for a #2/#3 pitcher, but not ace material.
Luckily for the Twins, they have a pretty good in-house candidate to overtake Santana as their best starting pitcher—Jose Berrios. After a rough 2016 campaign, Berrios pitched a solid season with a 3.89 ERA over 145.2 innings with a 8.6 K/9 compared to a 3.0 BB/9.
His ability to produce strikeouts is encouraging, something the Twins have not seen since Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano—and something they need in order to truly compete. Berrios was a bit inconsistent at times this year—his walk rate combined with his mid and hard contact rates led to a 4.51 xFIP, and you would like to see all three rates go down next year—but he was just 23 years old this season and he has a well known work ethic that makes me think improvement will come naturally.
Grade: B. Solid improvement for a young player, providing a solid base to improve upon next season.
It is a steep drop off going from Santana/Berrios to Kyle Gibson, but Gibson still has value for the Twins going into 2018. In 29 starts Gibson threw 158 innings and posted a 5.07 ERA with a 6.9 K/9 and 3.4 BB/9 ratios.
Gibson pitched like a #5 (or even #6) starter at times this year, but looking deeper at his numbers gives some hope for next season. Gibson posted a 4.85 FIP and 4.35 xFIP throughout the season along with a .328 BABIP, suggesting Gibson may have been a bit unlucky when at his worst in 2017. Gibson also improved as the season progressed; he posted a 4.23 ERA after June 1st and a 3.76 ERA with a 8.2 K/9 ratio in 13 starts after the All-Star Break this year.
Gibson has gotten a bad rep over the last two seasons. He has earned part of that reputation, but I think he is capable of 30 starts with a 4.50 ERA next season, which is a serviceable #4/#5 pitcher.
Grade: C-. Mike Fiers made 28 starts for the Astros this year with a 5.22 ERA. Every team needs a Gibson/Fiers, and the Twins already have theirs. Not a bad player to have, so long as you have some better ones as well.
Adelberto Mejia was frustrating to watch this season. Not only was the pitcher himself very inconsistent (with a 4.0 BB/9 ratio), but Paul Molitor also had an incredibly short leash for Mejia, even during games where the bullpen was fatigued from the game or week prior. Mejia was never given the ability to pitch out of jams, and I fear that it could harm him developmentally (and overwork the bullpen) if Molitor continues the same strategy in 2018.
Mejia still has solid potential as a #4/#5 pitcher, capable of striking out hitters (7.8 K/9 in 98 innings this year) and limiting walks (a 1.88 BB/9 in 28.2 innings in Triple-A this season). If Mejia becomes more consistent I could see him as a better version of Gibson, maybe a 4.30 ERA over 180 innings and 30 starts. If the Twins make the moves I expect them to make this offseason, though, Mejia will have to earn his spot in the rotation and prove himself to keep it. Mejia will likely act as the bench mark for acquisitions this offseason and rookie call ups next season—meaning the Twins will acquire/promote a player if they expect better results than they would get from Mejia.
Grade: D+. A bad grade split between his inconsistency and Molitor's unwillingness to let him learn on the job.
Taylor Rogers has been the only constant in the Twins' bullpen the last two years. He had a good 2017 posting a 3.07 ERA in 55.2 innings over 69 games with a 7.9 k/9 ratio. Rogers only allowed 14.3% of inherited runners to score in 2017, best among Twins' relievers who inherited at least 10 runners.
Rogers absolutely shuts down left handed batters (.560 OPS against, 25/6 K/BB ratio) but is lackluster against righties (.766 OPS, 24/15 K/BB). When Molitor uses him situationally it works well, but when he uses Rogers indiscriminately it gets ugly. I place Rogers' horrendous month of July (10 ER in 11 innings) on a combination of Molitor's misuse and over usage of Rogers.
Rogers still has great use as an extended LOOGY, coming in against a string of tough lefties or a lefty-righty-lefty situation, but he shouldn't be relied upon for multiple inning stints or against top-of-the-order right handers.
Grade: B+. When Molitor uses him right, Rogers is the sort of bullpen mainstay needed to win division championships.
Trevor Hildenberger only pitched 42.0 innings for the Twins this season, but quickly became the team’s most trusted option out of the bullpen. In those 42.0 innings, the rookie posted a 3.21 ERA/3.01 FIP/2.92 xFIP with a 9.4 K/9 and 1.3 BB/9 ratios while allowing only 20% of inherited runners to score.
I have liked Hildenberger throughout his time in the minor leagues and I'm glad he had such instant success. I think he can be a legitimate top reliever on a contending team. Still, I would not be surprised by some sophomore regression next year, in part from Molitor’s over usage (12 of 37 appearances in 2017 came on 0-night's rest), as well as traditional sophomore struggles based on advanced scouting and adjustments by other teams. I am all for the shift to 2-inning "ace" relievers, but I think Hildenberger may work out best as a 1-inning set-up guy to help limit exposure to his unique arm angle.
Grade: A+. A great reliever who earned a high leverage role for 2018.
After a good 2016, Pressly struggled out of the gate in 2017 and his numbers never completely recovered. A 4.70 ERA over 61.1 innings doesn't look good, even with solid 9.0 k/9 and 2.8 bb/9 ratios.
Like Kyle Gibson, Pressly's season is a tale of two halves. After his initial demotion in early June, Pressly posted a 2.71 ERA, and in the second half he posted a 2.61 ERA over 34.1 innings.
Pressly struggled mightily against lefties this season, with a .816 OPS against compared to a .618 OPS against versus right handed hitters. His career numbers are less drastic, but still show that Pressly should be protected a bit against good left handed hitters.
I think Pressly's pure stuff, improvement over the season, and personal history point to a rebound season in 2018, where he can combine with Rogers and Hildenberger to form a solid bullpen trio to use in the 7th and 8th innings.
Grade: C+. A 4.30 FIP and 3.81 xFIP hint that Pressly wasn't as bad as he seemed, and he was clutch down the stretch.
Tyler Duffey has been a bit of an enigma since making his Twins debut in 2015. He went from promising starter in 2015, to terrible starter in 2016, to promising reliever in April of this year, to poorly performing mop up guy the rest of this year.
A 4.91 ERA over 71 innings is not something to smile at, but looking deeper at Duffey's numbers offers hope going into next season. In his 71 innings, Duffey posted a respectable 8.5 k/9 and 2.3 bb/9 along with a 3.72 FIP and 3.80 xFIP while allowing an unlucky .326 BABIP.
In my mind, Duffey is certainly a reliever, but one with the potential to be a 2-inning "ace" type at his best and a 2-inning middle reliever at his worst. His fastball-curveball combination can be deadly at times and he has the stamina to last two innings every few nights so long as he is used correctly.
I think Duffey was the foremost target of Paul Molitor's inability to manage a bullpen. Duffey threw 41 innings in the first half of the season, and pitched on 0 or 1 day's rest 21 times which is too often for someone who threw multiple innings in 30 of 57 appearances. Duffey also struggles coming in with runners on base, allowing 46 percent of them to score this year, and should be used only to start innings if possible.
If given 75 innings over 55 appearances (spread evenly throughout the season), I think Duffey could become a solid fireman.
Grade: C-. Decent peripheral numbers are overshadowed by that terrible ERA, but there is hope if Duffey is utilized correctly.
Whereas Ryan Pressly and Tyler Duffey seemed to be better than their ERA suggests, Busenitz rookie season looks a bit worse than his flashy 1.99 ERA and respectable 21.7 Inherited Runners Scoring Percentage. Busenitz had a lackluster 6.54 k/9 ratio, allowed only a .212 BABIP, and posted a 4.20 FIP and 4.80 xFIP.
These numbers may be due to the small sample size, and I'm not overly worried about them in the future. Busenitz has a great fastball (averaging 95.8 mph) and solid curveball giving him a good 1-2 mix that has produced solid strikeout numbers in the minors. Busenitz merely needs time to learn and grow in the majors and should hopefully be given the chance in 2018. I'm not certain Busenitz spends the whole season on the big league roster, but he could easily be a solid 7th inning guy.
Grade: B. A solid first season to build upon, and the strikeouts should come soon enough.
Boshers is a meme All-Star, Rochester-to-Minnesota frequent flyer, and a "Molitor doesn't know how to manage a bullpen" whipping post.
Boshers is not, and will probably never be, a great pitcher. This season he posted a 4.89 ERA, 5.19 FIP, and 4.52 xFIP while his K/9 dropped to 7.2 this year. He only averages 90.7 mph on his heater and his off-speed pitches aren't particularly notable.
But Boshers is actually decent against lefties. In 159 plate appearances throughout his career Boshers has held left handed batters to a .621 OPS against, compared to a .793 OPS against right handed batters. Boshers simply needs to be brought in at the correct time, which generally means low leverage situations against lefties.
If Boshers' is not DFA'd, getting 30-45 innings from him next year is probably okay for the Twins. I see him as the placeholder for the Twins until left handed prospects like Gabriel Moya, Mason Melotakis, and Tyler Jay prove they are ready.
Grade: D+ for overall baseball output, A+ for memes and flight time. Long live Bully Bouch
The Twins pitching staff needs work, plain and simple.
The starting rotation has two solid pieces returning, one usable but unexciting piece in Gibson, and a mystery box in Mejia and the prospects. In the bullpen, we have Tyler Rogers, Trevor Hildenburger, and a few more pieces that need to put it together a bit better, along with a bevy of prospects that need to prove they belong.
I could see the Twins signing 3 pitchers this offseason, and we will look at the free agent market for pitchers next.