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Previewing the Twins Triple-A pitching rotation

Because the Rochester Red Wings need love, too

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Minnesota Twins
Will Smeltzer start the year as the ace of the Triple-A staff?
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

In the Year of Our Lord 2020, the Minnesota Twins finally have some starting pitching depth to speak of. And that means that we’re going to talk about it, dang it.

The Twins have four starters in ink at the top of the big club’s rotation, along with a host of candidates for the No. 5 rotation spot. Then, the likes of Michael Pineda and Rich Hill are scheduled to return in late spring/early summer from suspension and injury, respectively. That will likely bump a few more arms down to Triple-A Rochester, meaning that the Red Wing should also have a fairly stacked rotation.

The Twins’ No. 5 spot is a battle between non-roster invitee Jhoulys Chacin and 40-man roster members Devin Smeltzer, Randy Dobnak, and Lewis Thorpe. If Chacin doesn’t win, it would seem unlikely that he’d stick around in Triple-A on a minor-league deal. That means that at least two, and possibly all three of the other candidates could land in Rochester in early April.

Thorpe is back in camp now after missing about a week for personal reasons. It’s fair to assume that he’s now behind in the competition, so let’s go ahead and pencil him in as a Red Wing.

Last year’s Red Wing rotation was headlined by Thorpe and the departed Kohl Stewart, who started 19 games each throughout the season. The also-departed Chase De Jong and Drew Hutchison were both in the top five in Triple-A starts, and Smeltzer started 14 games as the most impressive starting pitcher in Rochester.

My take on the most likely scenario is that Chacin heads north with the Twins and the Dobnak makes the team as a swingman of sorts, starting when needed and performing in long relief or perhaps as an opener depending on the early spring weather and schedule.

That would mean that Smeltzer and Thorpe would provide a formidable 1-2 punch at Triple-A Rochester, followed by any combination of guys who the Twins want to see log some innings. Last year, Sean Poppen started nine of his 12 Triple-A appearances, although it seems likely the Twins see him as a reliever at the big-league level. Similarly, Zach Littell started seven games at Rochester in 2019 but profiles as a reliever with the Twins.

Of course, we’d be remiss to discuss the big, next-up names that are surging their respective ways through the Twins system.

With Brusdar Graterol’s departure to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ system, Jordan Balazovic is now the Twins’ top pitching prospect, ranked No. 4 overall in the organization by MLB Pipeline. He finished last season at High-A Fort Myers, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him start there and cruise through Double-A Pensacola before ending the season in Triple-A.

In terms of arms that might impact Rochester early in the season, No. 8 Twins prospect Jhoan Duran finished the 2019 campaign with seven mostly successful starts in Pensacola. He may start there again, but he’ll be in Rochester before too long.

Jorge Alcala, who was part of the return from Houston for Ryan Pressly, might start in Triple-A but is appearing to be more of a lockdown relief arm than anything else after splitting his appearances between the rotation and the bullpen at Double-A last year.

Probably the only sure thing for the rotation to start the season at Rochester is Griffin Jax. The former 3rd-round draft pick started 20 games in Pensacola last year and was impressive to the tune of a 2.67 ERA and 1.096 WHIP. He finished the season with three starts in Triple-A and will start the season there, looking to miss a few more bats and improve on his strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Here’s the start-of-the-season rotation projection for Triple-A Rochester.

  1. Devin Smeltzer
  2. Lews Thorpe
  3. Sean Poppen
  4. Zach Littell
  5. Griffin Jax

To be clear, both Poppen and Littell have a future in the bullpen, with Littell already having extended success at the big-league level in 2019. But the Twins will want them to each get some innings under their belt, so expect them to each start some games in Triple-A, especially early in the season.

Before too long, Duran and possibly Balazovic will join Rochester, pushing that duo to the bullpen. Perhaps Alcala will get some starts, too. And, of course, both Smeltzer and Thrope will surely be called up on by the Twins at some point, but in an ideal world will probably spend much of the season in Triple-A.

All five of these arms have big-league futures, which is significant. There isn’t much upside here beyond Thorpe and Jax and possibly even Smeltzer projecting as No. 3 starters in the big leagues, but the depth and overall quality is impressive.

That said, fans in Rochester will only need to wait until mid-season before the upside arrives in the form of Alcala, Duran, and eventually, Balazovic. There’s plenty more talent on the way, to say the least.

It’s a great time to be a Twins fan, and in turn, a Rochester Red Wings fan. It should be an extremely fun group to keep an eye on throughout the 2020 campaign.