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Another Twins Pitching Revamp is Underway

Here’s hoping it’s quicker than the last one...

MLB: ALDS-Minnesota Twins at Houston Astros
Pablo Lopez will be leading the way for a Twins starting rotation that appears to still be in flux for 2024.
Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Twins lost two of their top four starting pitchers from the second half of last season this week. Combined with their stated intention to enter next season with a significantly lower payroll than last year, it’s a strange vibe for a team that won the division and a playoff series last season with the league’s best starting rotation.

Back in 2019 and 2020, the Twins augmented a strong offense with a roughly league-average pitching staff en route to consecutive A.L. Central Division titles. They backed that up with horrendous pitching in 2021 and 2022 and ultimately finished in last place during the former season and third place in the latter.

The midseason acquisition of Sonny Gray in 2022 and the offseason trade for Pablo Lopez last winter were the most prominent of a series of moves designed to drastically improve the starting rotation. And that’s exactly what happened.

In 2023, the Twins led the league in quality start percentage, with 47% of their starts ending with the starter allowing three or fewer earned runs over six innings. The Twins’ pitching staff as a whole was third in pitcher Wins Above Replacement (WAR) and Win Probability Added (WPA), according to Baseball Reference, and finished first in strikeout percentage.

Now, Sonny Gray and Kenta Maeda are gone. Tyler Mahle, who was fantastic early last season, underwent Tommy John surgery and is a free agent as well. The Twins did extend Lopez, who should play the part of a legitimate ace over the next few seasons, but true proven depth falls off significantly.

Joe Ryan was solid before a midseason injury but doesn’t realistically. profile as anything more than a No. 3 starter on a team with designs on playing deep into the postseason. Bailey Ober pitched to the tune of a 3.37 ERA in 200 13 major-league innings over the last season and may have upside equal or slightly greater upside as that of Ryan. He pitched a career-high in innings across Triple-A and the majors last year, however, and the Twins began to tread carefully related to his health toward the end of the season.

Sitting here in early December, the only sure things in the rotation are Lopez, Ryan, and Ober. Beyond that trio, there’s Chris Paddack, who was solid in a relief role last year after returning from Tommy John surgery and will likely move back to the rotation with some sort of innings limit. There are also a few starters-turned-relievers who could become starters once again (Louis Varland, Josh Winder, Cole Sands, Brent Headrick, Jordan Balazovic) and yet-to-debut prospects David Festa and Matt Canterino.

Once again, there’s depth, but it’s largely unproven. What we need to hope this front office avoids is the backsliding of 2021-2022. No J.A. Happ, Matt Shoemaker, Randy Dobnak, Dylan Bundy, Chris Archer, or Devin Smeltzer, please.

Recent reporting suggests that the Twins are still exploring a trade for a “frontline” starter, which is absolutely the right approach. It will almost surely be paired with the shedding of payroll from the position player side of things; Jorge Polanco ($10.5 million), Max Kepler ($10 million), Kyle Farmer (estimated $6.5 million), and Christian Vazquez ($10 million) all figure to be involved in rumors. Combined with their position player prospect depth, the Twins should be able to pull something off.

The Twins have no business kicking the can on competitive full-rotation starting pitching into 2025 or beyond, given how good they were in 2023 and how stacked they are with young position player talent. Here’s hoping that that’s exactly how Derek Falvey and Thad Levine see things.