The Twins might not have quality, but they sure have quantity when it comes to starting rotation options this spring. Three men are likely considered locks for the rotation—Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, and Homer Bailey. After that, the Twins have two opens spots, and about a half dozen legitimate options. Randy Dobnak, Devin Smeltzer, Sean Poppen, and Lewis Thorpe all performed fairly well in their debuts last season, plus the Twins are likely to invite a couple more veterans to spring training on non-roster deals.
The first two names locked into that rotation provide very little reason to worry, if not being exactly what Twins fans wanted to see going into February. Jose Berrios is entering his age-26 season with four seasons of MLB experience. As he is just entering his prime, he could still become the ace the Twins have sought, but is well locked into a “1A” role in the rotation. Jake Odorizzi easily fills the second role in the Twins rotation, and if he can match his career year in 2019, will hold the role down well. Even regression to his career norms shouldn’t provide reason to worry through the first couple months of the season, before reinforcements arrive. Homer Bailey is clearly the weakest of the three rotation locks. Bailey’s 2019 career resurrection in Kansas City and Oakland is likely sustainable, and if that is the case, he is valid option in the Twins rotation. If Bailey does struggle, there are plenty of reinforcements available, and his one-year contract will not be a barrier to moving on for the organization.
Another veteran pitcher the Twins have been interested in is Taijuan Walker, which was reported by LEN3 the other day. Walker is an interesting thought for the Twins, as he is a couple years removed from a 2018 Tommy John surgery. Walker is still only 27 years old, despite debuting in the pros in 2013. He has a career total ERA of 3.95, and when healthy, his peripheral numbers were interesting: 1.255 career WHIP, 8.1 career K/9, and an average fastball velocity of 94.5 mph. Since Walker has pitched a total of 14 innings (and only one in 2019) since 2017, he’s a gamble, but a good roll of the dice for the Twins front office.
Besides Walker and any other potential non-roster invites the Twins bring in, they have a solid group of young arms waiting in the wings. Lewis Thorpe is the most highly regarded prospect of the bunch, generally landing in most top-10 lists for the stacked Twins farm system. Thorpe pitched as both a starter and a reliever for the Twins in 2019, accruing 45 innings as a big-leaguer, with an unimpressive ERA, but a few reasons to have faith that include a 3.47 FIP and 10.1 K/9.
Devin Smeltzer is the other lefty in the conversation, and may have a leg-up based purely on handedness. Smeltzer was acquired with Luke Raley and Logan Forsythe from the Dodgers for Brian Dozier, and might be the best part of that return. Smeltzer made eleven appearances for the Twins in 2019, six of those as starts. Most noteworthy was a relief appearance he made at Yankee Stadium, in which he held the Bombers to one run in five innings, and saved the Twins bullpen. His total ERA was 3.86, and he earned 0.7 bWAR in his handful of games. FIP, WHIP, K/9, and BB/9 all look good, and provide reasons to believe in Smeltzer going forward as well.
Randy Dobnak started 2019 in Single-A, and finished it by starting a playoff game at Yankee Stadium. Dobnak made nine appearances for the Twins, five of which were starts. Dobnak’s ERA is a sparkly 1.59, and in 28 innings he accrued 0.6 bWAR. Dobnak succeeded with less swing-and-miss stuff than most of this group, with an 8.1 K/9, by holding opposing players to a 1.129 WHIP and 8.6 hits per nine innings. With baseball possibly de-juicing the baseball, his game could play even better in 2020.
Cooper Carlson’s favorite player, Sean Poppen, is also an outside possibility for the Twins rotation. Like Matt Birk, Poppen went to Harvard. I grew up in the ‘90s as a Vikings fan, so I have to make that reference from time-to-time. Anyway, prior to suffering a season ending-injury, Poppen made four relief appearance with the Twins. Poppen is still primarily a starting pitcher, however, and made a combined 16 total starts between Double-A and Triple-A in 2019. His ERA wasn’t spectacular, and none of his other stats make him an obviously better candidate than Thorpe, Smeltzer, or Dobnak; but a strong spring could.
There are also a couple names I didn’t mention above that the Twins could use in an “opener” role. Brusdar Graterol has been confirmed to begin the season as a bullpen arm, but his 100-mph plus fastball could be used in the first couple innings, before turning over the ball to another pitcher. Fernando Romero has also transitioned into the ‘pen, but was used as a starter as recently as 2018 at both Triple-A Rochester and the big league level. Both guys have absolute shutdown stuff. Romero’s has never translated to the majors, and he has lost his status as a top prospect. Graterol is considered the Twins best pitching prospect, but has only thrown 30 innings as a September call-up.
Michael Pineda will returning to the team in May, and was the Twins best starter in the second half of 2019 before his suspension. He’ll push someone with options out of the rotation. Pineda had a 4.01 ERA in 2019, and is projected to post similar numbers to his 2019 season again in 2020. Rich Hill will also be joining the rotation in mid-summer, barring any setbacks to his rehab. Hill is recovering from an alternative to Tommy John, and prior to the injury, had been one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2019. His ERA was 2.45, and he had 1.4 bWAR in only 58 innings pitched.
Over the course of a season, most teams end up using around a dozen starting pitchers, and the Twins are well set to do so. While they only have a couple of pitchers that are anywhere near a “sure thing,” the Twins have a plethora of options to turn to. Speaking of options, almost all the pitchers they’ll use have options, so the Twins can shuffle guys between the MLB rotation and the Red Wings based on performance or roster needs. Quantity over quality may not pay off, but it may be the answer for the Twins in an off season they couldn’t acquire the best available pitchers.
Who is most likely to be a part of the Twins opening day rotation
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None of the above (two guys not mentioned)