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Which Twins benefit from a 29-man roster?

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How the Twins might utilize three extra spots in different schedule scenarios

Minnesota Twins v Detroit Tigers
Willians Astudillo and Jake Cave are likely to benefit from the delayed start to the season
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

We don’t know much about when the 2020 baseball season might begin – or whether it will begin at all. I want to be optimistic. I want to believe baseball will be back in 2020. Naturally, the powers that be within the MLB and the MLBPA are planning ahead for different possibilities. It seems each day brings a new rumor of the different ideas and scenarios for a 2020 season. While we don’t know, and probably won’t know for a while, any details about a potential schedule we have learned some details about an agreement between MLB and MLBPA on how they will address a shortened schedule. There are a lot of implications from this agreement for the players in terms of earnings, the arbitration process, and the amateur draft, which TJ wrote about last week. But in terms of the 2020 season, one of the more interesting details is that teams are expected to be allowed to use 29-man rosters for the first month of the season.

We don’t yet know if the restrictions on the number of pitchers allowed on the active roster would be relaxed in tandem with this expansion. Clubs are currently capped at a maximum of 13 pitchers for the normal 26-man roster and it would seem logical that the pitcher cap would be increased to 14 or 15 for a 29-man roster. Especially as it seems likely the schedule will be condensed in some manner. But the details remain to be seen.

To a large degree, the construction of the team’s roster will be driven by the format of the schedule. How the front office and manager deploys their resources very well may change if the truncated schedule includes doubleheaders each week or if the schedule is just day after day of single games with no off days. And there is the additional complication that this season will begin after a modified (read: shortened) “spring training,” which means the players are not likely to be in tip top game shape when the season officially begins. These uncertainties will create some interesting battles for roster spots and challenging decisions for the Twins leadership to make.

Before Spring Training ended abruptly, the Twins really only had two active roster spot battles – one for the last bench position player spot and one for the last spot in the pitching rotation. At the time, it seemed that Randy Dobnak had the inside track to the fifth starter’s job while Rich Hill was on the mend from last year’s elbow surgery and Michael Pineda finished his suspension. He had outperformed his competitors, non-roster invitee (NRI) Jhoulys Chacin and left-handers Devin Smeltzer and Lewis Thorpe to that point in camp. The last bench spot would likely have gone to an outfielder (probably Jake Cave) due to uncertainty and caution related to Byron Buxton’s shoulder surgery and Marwin Gonzalez’s off season knee surgery.

In the spirit of being optimistic that we will have Twins baseball in 2020, let’s look at how the Twins might resolve those camp battles and utilize three extra roster spots under different potential schedule scenarios. Of all the schedule options discussed by MLB and the MLBPA, there is universal agreement baseball must only return when it can do so safely. Popular wisdom suggests that means a July 1 or later start to the season.

The Camp Battles

The delayed start to the season will change the dynamics of the camp battle decisions. It’s likely Hill, Buxton, and Gonzalez are all healthy when the season resumes. If Hill is healthy – a BIG IF given his lengthy injury history – then it makes sense for him to take the fifth starter’s job. That’s what he was signed to do and he’s the best of the bunch in consideration for that role when healthy.

The decision calculus for the last bench spot is likely to be completely different in July than it was in March. In almost every scenario I can think of, I think the Twins will now keep catcher/utility man Willians Astudillo in the big leagues to start the season. With a shortened spring training and the schedule beginning in the high heat of the summer I think Rocco Baldelli will be careful with catchers Mitch Garver and Alex Avila and try to manage their workload early in the season. La Tortuga’s presence could help them get their game legs under them over that first month, while also giving Rocco extra versatility to spell other players. And if the schedule is compressed like two of the scenarios below, carrying a third catcher will be a must.

If Hill and Astudillo take the last two “normal” spots – how might the Twins use the three extra spots?

Scenario #1: Business as Usual

One of the schedule options being discussed is to simply pick up the schedule as it was planned for 2020, whenever baseball can resume safely. In this scenario, the schedule would keep its planned off days and maintain a more normal workload on the players. Under this scenario, I think the expanded 29-man roster would mostly be utilized toward supporting the pitching staff as the starters get stretched out and relievers get into shape to go multiple days in a row. The Twins were originally scheduled to be on the second game of a stretch of 13 games in 13 days on July 1. If this is where the season starts up, they would not have an off day for two weeks to begin the new season. I think in this scenario, we’d most likely see the Twins use the three extra spots this way:

  • 27th Roster Spot – Piggyback Relief Pitcher: Randy Dobnak, RHP
  • 28th Roster Spot – Bench: Jake Cave, OF
  • 29th Roster Spot – Relief Pitcher: Fernando Romero, RHP

There is a good chance that Hill will still be building up stamina and pitch counts and the Twins are likely to be cautious with him. I could see them using a piggyback approach with Hill and Dobnak. The two “starters” could cover the bulk of a game with each limited to two times through the opponent’s lineup. This could help manage Hill’s workload and health, potentially keep some burden off the rest of the bullpen and would also be interesting from a strategic standpoint. The two of them are about as opposite as can be in terms of stuff and style. Hill, the lanky lefty with lots of high fastballs and huge, slow curveballs followed by the stocky Dobnak’s righthanded, low three quarters sinkers and sliders could pair really well together.

If it were allowed, I think all the extra spots could go to pitchers. But I think the highest the pitcher cap will be raised is to 15. So at least one of these spots will have to go to a position player. That spot likely goes to Cave as a hedge for Buxton’s shoulder and Gonzalez’s knee. I could see the Twins being careful with the amount of running they ask Gonzalez to do and Cave’s presence would allow Rocco to make the most of Marwin’s versatility and use him all over the field to spell other players. The last spot may be an opportunity for the Twins to bring along prospect Fernando Romero in some lower leverage spots out of the bullpen. His upside as a potential power reliever could be very valuable down the stretch and in potential playoff games if he can reach it. This scenario may just give him the opportunity to finally prove he can stick.

Scenario #2: The Grind

Another schedule option is to condense it and play as many single games in as few days as possible. This would require eliminating off days and grinding through games every day. In this scenario, I think the last three spots play out this way:

  • 27th Roster Spot – Piggyback Relief Pitcher: Randy Dobnak, RHP
  • 28th Roster Spot – Long Relief Pitcher: Jhoulys Chacin, RHP (NRI)
  • 29th Roster Spot – Bench: Jake Cave, OF

I think the Twins follow the same approach with Hill and Dobnak as scenario #1 above. With no off days, the risk of burning up the pitching staff is higher and there may be more situations requiring length from relievers. Here, I think the Twins keep non-roster invitee pitcher Jhoulys Chacin for extra bullpen length. They do currently have 2 open 40-man roster spots due to Michael Pineda’s suspension and Fernando Romero’s placement on the restricted list due to visa issues. Keeping Chacin would add veteran depth and length to the pitching staff, would not require removing a player from the 40-man, and would allow Devin Smeltzer and Lewis Thorpe to work as starters in Triple-A and continue their development. Cave’s inclusion for the last spot is probably even more critical in this scenario. The day after day grind likely will require some additional off days for Buxton to manage his shoulder and Cave can play a key role to keep Buxton, Eddie Rosario, and Max Kepler fresh.

Scenario #3: Doubling Up

The league could also try to get in more games and maintain an off day each week or so by playing planned doubleheaders. Like the cap on pitcher limits, it is not clear if the roster would expand one more spot for double headers like it does today. Let’s assume this will be the case and the roster cap for a double dip would be 30 players total and 16 pitchers.

If there were a weekly doubleheader, I think there are two options we might see the Twins go with. The more traditional approach would be simply calling up a fresh starting pitcher each week for the second game of the doubleheader based on whoever is up next in Triple-A. However, we’ve seen the Twins think more progressively and I think it might be more likely that they use a second piggy-back arrangement for the double headers. I still think Dobnak piggy backs with Hill as part of the normal rotation like the above scenarios.

  • 27th Roster Spot – Piggyback Relief Pitcher (with Hill): Randy Dobnak, RHP
  • 28th Roster Spot – DH Piggyback Starting Pitcher: Jhoulys Chacin, RHP (NRI)
  • 29th Roster Spot – Bench: Jake Cave, OF
  • 30th Roster Spot – DH Piggyback Relief Pitcher (with Chacin): Devin Smeltzer, LHP

Thorpe and Smeltzer are the two obvious candidates to bring up for a double header if the Twins take the traditional approach. But as they are both left handers and have similar arsenals; it might not make sense to piggyback them together. I think it’s more likely that one of them works in tandem with Chacin to cover the extra game. Like Dobnak, Chacin is a right-handed sinker-slider guy and pairing him with one of the lefties probably makes more strategic sense. When Spring Training was halted, Smeltzer seemed to be ahead of Thorpe in the pecking order, so I’m sticking with him here. Like before, Cave would take that last bench spot.

What do you think? Is there another scheduling scenario you think is more likely? Does it change the way the Twins might utilize the extra roster spots? Which other players benefit?