The Minnesota Twins were surprisingly in contention until late in the 2015 season, but a quiet offseason mixed with an entire league that is up in the air has most projections down on them again heading into 2016. The Twins largely return an offense that was 13th in baseball in runs scored, but to their peril also returns pretty much an identical pitching staff to the one that ranked 19th in ERA and dead last in K/9 for the fifth straight season.
And quite frankly it’s easy to see why projections see a backslide. That strikeout rate streak hearkens back to the four-year dark period in which the team lost 90 games in each season, but did manage to significantly restock a farm system that’s starting to see the fruits of its labor. In the grand scheme of things a small step back doesn’t hurt if it means the club gets more production out of Byron Buxton than 2015 — that isn’t much of a hurdle to clear — and if it can get some clarity on the pitching staff moving forward.
Today, that’s what we’re going to try to do for 2016.
The top four spots are pretty much nailed down for the club. In some order, it’ll be:
In fact, the No. 5 spot is pretty much nailed down with the emergence of right-hander Tyler Duffey, who bounced back from a disastrous first start against the Blue Jays to throw nine starts with the following line:
5-0 (team 8-1)
52-18 K/BB in 56 innings
.244/.304/.349 opponents’ slash
That’s a pretty solid No. 5, or No. 4 if you want to give Milone — the team’s token lefty — that spot. There isn’t an ace in the bunch, but each pitcher has shown something recently enough to think there’s a chance they could be helpful in 2016. Hughes set the league ablaze in his first year with the club, then battled injuries, velocity and home run issues in 2015 after signing an extension. He was the club’s de facto ace but gave way to Santana, who had an up-and-down first year with the club after being popped for a 100-game suspension after testing positive for Stanozolol on the eve of the season.
Like Duffey, Santana finished with a flourish. In his last seven starts, he had a 1.62 ERA, .568 OPS against and a 47-14 K/BB rate in 50 innings. In other words, he pitched like an ace for an extended stretch. He’ll most likely get the ball on Opening Day.
Gibson’s evolution continued in 2015, and while his rates don’t look all that impressive (6.7 K/9), it’s worth noting that from May 1 on, he struck out 139 batters in 172.1 innings (7.3 K/9). Gibson also had three months — June, July and September — in which he fanned more than 8.0 batters per 9. That, combined with a heavy sinker that induces a 50-plus percent groundball rate makes for a really nice sleeper candidate fantasy-wise, especially if he can either mitigate his home run rate a bit or slash his walk rate. Both are possible with his home park and the Twins’ insistence on not walking anyone. He’s a nice mid-rotation guy.
Milone isn’t flashy and quite frankly doesn’t do anything all that well, and if we’re being honest a sexier pick for this spot would be Trevor May — who was a lockdown reliever for the Twins in the second half last year — or prospect Jose Berrios, but for now the Twins will go with the left-handed placeholder. Acquired in a quirky deal with the A’s for Sam Fuld, Milone bounced back from a rough stint with the Twins in 2014 to have a quietly solid 2015. He won nine games, had a sub-4.00 ERA and struck out 6.4 batters per nine with an OK-ish 1.28 WHIP. For a No. 5 starter, teams can do worse.
So the rotation would seem to be pretty settled, right?
Well that doesn’t mean that — for the first time in a long time — there aren’t other options. Berrios is remarkably close to the big leagues and has drawn rave reviews for his work ethic. In 12 Triple-A starts last year (if that seems like a lot, it is), Berrios had a 2.62 ERA, 9.9 K/9 and a sub-1.00 WHIP. It’s time. And he’ll be up soon enough. Hopefully the difference between him and Milone isn’t enough to cost the team meaningful spots in the division in the meantime, but in this year’s AL, that’s not likely.
May is another contender for a rotation spot, but the team quietly has to be pleased with the difference he showed as a reliever after converting.
2015, starting: 4.43 ERA in 83.1 innings, 7.9 K/9, 1.38 WHIP
2015, relieving: 2.87 ERA in 31.1 innings, 10.6 K/9, 1.21 WHIP
Upon moving to the pen, May flashed upper-90’s stuff, a devastating changeup and a good curveball. He could be a future closer, and perhaps even for the Twins. The club won’t admit it publicly, but he’s probably done as a starter. It’s too bad, his ceiling is higher than Milone’s, and maybe just about any other Twins starter. Starting Mike Pelfrey over him — in the eyes of this writer — in 2015 was a mistake.
The other wrinkle is Ricky Nolasco, the veteran right-hander who wouldn’t seem to be a great fit in the bullpen and is still due another $25 million over the next two seasons. With no market for his services and no fit in the rotation, it appears as though Nolasco will climb the bullpen ladder and see where it takes him. His fastball has always been inherently hittable, but he has good secondary stuff and a bump in velocity might be what his heater needs to get past guys. There’s some potential there, but not necessarily “$12 million man out of the bullpen” good. It’ll be interesting to see what the Twins do if he’s healthy AND bad in 2016. But as things stand now, he doesn’t look likely to have a rotation shot in 2016.
The back end of the bullpen is pretty set with the supposed return to health of closer Glen Perkins. When he’s healthy, few left-handed relievers in the game are better. When he’s right he’s got no discernible platoon split, but lefties have given him more trouble over the past two years, oddly. May and Kevin Jepsen are the insurance plans on the back end. Jepsen was phenomenal as the de facto closer when Perkins went down last year, and his presence on the 2016 team serves to the shrewdness of general manager Terry Ryan, who insisted on acquiring an arm with more than just the rest of last season under control at the 2015 trade deadline.
The Twins have ample bullpen reserves coming up through the farm system, but for now, none are really ready to take that plunge.
As the writer sees it, the bullpen will look something like this on Opening Day:
That’s seven guys, but there’s a good chance there’ll be at least eight, with one guy chosen from the rest below. As for the current pen, Tonkin is out of options, and is a hard-throwing righty without much in terms of secondary pitches. He doesn’t have the flexibility to throw multiple innings that a manager might like out of a middle guy, but he’ll get at least one more shot to stick. Abad is a non-roster invitee who is basically guaranteed to take Brian Duensing’s spot as the bullpen lefty, as long as he doesn’t fall on his face. Fien is just a guy, who has gone from lots of strikeouts and no walks to fewer strikeouts and somehow fewer walks. His leash probably isn’t long as he’s on the wrong side of 30 and trending the wrong way.
Other left-handed candidates include Pat Dean, Logan Darnell, Taylor Rogers and Ryan O’Rourke, though the latter seems the most likely to be expunged from the 40-man when the club invariably adds Abad at the end of the Grapefruit League slate. Buddy Boshers, Aaron Thompson and Dan Runzler could each make some noise as non-roster invitees as well.
The club also has ample right-handed options, including former Rule 5 guys Ryan Pressly and J.R. Graham. Those two are probably the most notable in terms of guys who can help the team right away, and if Pressly is completely healthy, he could be the eighth guy to make the Opening Day bullpen. Brandon Kintzler, if all goes well, could be the 2016 version of Blaine Boyer, though the team is far less likely to need that sort of thing.
And then there’s the prospects. Nick Burdi, J.T. Chargois and Jake Reed headline the list of flamethrowers who could surface at some point in 2016, and left-hander Tyler Jay — the club’s 2015 first-round pick — could also make some noise as well. The club will likely start those guys conservatively — it is the Twins after all — but those are some names to watch.
All in all, this is likely a middle-of-the-pack pitching staff, though there is a chance they can finally climb out of the strikeout cellar.