The Minnesota Twins entered the off season with one overarching goal from a personnel standpoint: improve the starting rotation.
The Twins weren’t able to land any of the top-flight free agent pitchers, but they made plenty of moves on the periphery to improve their overall pitching depth prior to swinging a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers late in the winter for Kenta Maeda.
The top two slots in the rotation will be filled by the same players as last year in Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi. Maeda is better than what most teams will offer in the No. 3 slot, giving the Twins three legitimate top-of-the-rotation options.
The Twins also signed veteran Homer Bailey, who will be a solid No. 4 pitcher at best, but doesn’t offer much upside, and is more of a solid innings-eater than anything else. The more intriguing signing was former Dodger Rich Hill, who is 39 years old and coming off of elbow surgery. Hill will likely return to the mound in June or July, and if he offers anything similar to what he’s done in past seasons than he’ll be an absolute steal as a fourth starter, bumping Bailey to No. 5.
Don’t forget about Michael Pineda, either, who has 39 games left on a 60-game suspension and will be eligible to return in mid-May, although he likely won’t appear in a major-league game until sometime in June. Pineda was the best starter that the Twins trotted out during the second half of the 2019 season, so his eventual reintroduction to the team is not insignificant.
Come July, the starting rotation should look like this:
That’s the best-case scenario, which would potentially bump Bailey to a long-relief role, along with whomever wins the No. 5 role out of Spring Training.
That said, the No. 5 role matters, as we’re looking at a minimum of 10 weeks of games before the cavalry arrives. So, if we’re handicapping the race for the fifth and final rotation spot, what does it look like as it stands today?
1. Jhoulys Chacin
Veteran starter Jhoulys Chacin was added on a minor-league contract and should have the leg up on the No. 5 job.
As recently as 2018, Chacin won a team-best 15 games with a 3.50 ERA for a 96-win Milwaukee Brewers club. However, his 2019 campaign was an absolute disaster. Chacin was was released in August and picked up by the Red Sox, but between Milwaukee and Boston he put up an ERA of 6.01 in 103 1⁄3 innings.
The strikeout rate was the best since his rookie season, however, and he still possesses a wipe-out slider. The Twins undoubtedly think that the 32-year-old still has something left in the tank, and there’s clearly quite a bit of upside for an end-of-the-rotation candidate. Indeed, that was central to the Twins’ free agency pitch to Chacin, who picked the Twins over other suitors willing to offer up a minor-league deal.
The recent success combined with Chacin’s lack of minor-league options gives him the inside track on winning the role. Depending on what pitching coach Wes Johnson is able to get out of the veteran and what Chacin’s spring outings look like, it’s fair to assume that he’s the guy the Twins have penciled in at No. 5.
2. Devin Smeltzer
If Chacin doesn’t show enough in Fort Myers, Smeltzer has to be considered the next man up.
The former fifth-round pick of the Dodgers posses the best combination of current, demonstrated performance and overall upside. In 20 games in the minor leagues last season (15 appearances at Triple-A Rochester and five at Double-A Pensacola), Smeltzer had a 2.79 ERA and a 1.045 WHIP with a strong 9.0 strikeouts per nine innings.
In the big leagues, Smeltzer had 11 appearances, including six starts, and put up a 3.86 ERA and a 1.265 WHIP. His strikeout rate dipped to just 7.0 per nine innings with the Twins, and the team apparently has had him working on an improved slider to complement his impressive changeup.
Smeltzer likely doesn’t have the long-term upside of more than a No. 3 starter on a good team, but that would be more than enough to hold down the No. 5 spot while the Twins await the returns of Pineda and Hill.
3. Lewis Thorpe
Thorpe has the most impressive stuff of the group battling for the final rotation spot and arguably the greatest long-term upside, but his performances last season in both the majors and minors weren’t as dominant as either Smeltzer or Randy Dobnak.
The most likely scenario is that Thorpe, who had a 4.58 ERA in 20 appearances in Triple-A and a 6.18 ERA in 27 2⁄3 innings in the big leagues, will start the season in Rochester and have the opportunity to be their staff ace. That will set him up for call-ups as needed throughout the season and a potential role in the rotation beginning with Opening Day 2021 — or perhaps he’ll be used as trade bait prior to the July deadline.
4. Randy Dobnak
Everyone’s favorite mustachioed Uber driver might have the best chance of these four guys to make the roster, although not necessarily as the No. 5 starter.
Dobnak has dominated every level of the minor leagues over the past three seasons and was legitimately good in the majors, too: a 1.59 ERA and a 4.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 28 1⁄3 innings. He started five of his nine big-league appearances, occasionally appearing as an opener. Dobnak also started Game 2 of the ALDS series against the New York Yankees.
Despite the results to this point, it’s unclear what Dobnak’s upside really is moving forward. He’s probably best used as a long-reliever with the ability to start or be an opener, almost functioning as a swingman in the bullpen.
The guess here is that Dobnak heads north with the Twins come late March but isn’t named the No. 5 starter, while Thorpe and Smeltzer open the season in Triple-A. Chacin will get the first crack at the starting role, with the other three options all waiting in the wings.
If things go according to plan and the team remains relatively healthy, the Twins will have a glut of starting pitching come mid summer. And that’s a great problem to have.
Who do you think will earn the Twins’ fifth rotation spot out of camp?
This poll is closed
Someone else (tell us who in the comments)