MINNEAPOLIS — The Twins’ offseason needs are crystal clear: starting pitching, starting pitching and more starting pitching. Sure, they have other areas that must be addressed, but rebuilding their rotation will be the most important focus this offseason.
It’s not an unfamiliar position for this front office. Last year, the Twins went into the offseason with two rotation spots to fill. The year before that, the only starter they had under contract at the very beginning of the offseason was José Berríos. They ended up filling that rotation by bringing back Jake Odorizzi on a qualifying offer, swinging a trade for Kenta Maeda and adding veterans in free agency.
“This feels a little deja vu-ish,” president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said at the end of September. “… That doesn’t make it easy. Naturally I would love to be able to line up five to seven guys and tell you that we are good and we don’t have to spend any time on that this offseason. We know we do. It’s an area we are going to spend a lot of time focusing on and trying to be creative and think about ways, via free agency or trade, we can impact there.”
The Twins went into the 2021 season with a rotation consisting of Maeda, Berríos, Michael Pineda, J.A. Happ and Matt Shoemaker. At one point during the second half of the season, they rotation was entirely different.
While Berríos turned in one of the best seasons of his career, he did so in part for the Toronto Blue Jays after being traded away in July. Maeda, coming off a 2020 season in which he was runner-up for the Cy Young Award, pitched through elbow discomfort for most of the year and eventually underwent Tommy John surgery. Pineda, the only member of the group to make it to the end of the season, required three separate stints on the injured list.
Happ, like Berríos, also was traded, the Twins somehow finding a taker in the St. Louis Cardinals for the veteran lefty who had a 6.77 earned-run average at the time. Shoemaker was even less effective. His journey with the Twins saw him get demoted to the bullpen, designated for assignment and pitching briefly in Triple-A before his eventual release.
Shoemaker’s struggles paved way for rookie Bailey Ober to come in and grab hold of a spot, of which he took full advantage. Ober, a bright spot in an otherwise relatively bleak season, posted a 4.19 earned-run average in 20 starts and importantly, considering his injury history, did not have any arm issues as the Twins closely managed his innings.
Other rookies also got extended tryouts, to varying results. Griffin Jax finished the year with a 6.37 ERA, maintaining his hold on a rotation spot after the trade deadline. Lefty Charlie Barnes got a look, too.
So did Joe Ryan, acquired in the Nelson Cruz trade with Tampa Bay, and he showed the Twins plenty to like in five starts. In the second game of his career, he took a perfect game into the seventh inning against Cleveland.
Randy Dobnak, Lewis Thorpe and Devin Smeltzer, considered the Twins’ primary depth options heading into the year, all spent a majority of their seasons on the injured list, and the Twins didn’t get a chance to look at some of their top pitching prospects like Jhoan Duran or Josh Winder, either, because of injuries.
If Berríos was still in the organization and Maeda wasn’t going to miss most, if not all, of next season, this would be a much different story for the Twins.
But right now, they’ve entered an offseason in which Ober and Ryan — who have a combined 25 games of major-league experience — appear ticketed for rotation spots to begin the season and the rest will need to be filled.
How they do that — free agency, trades, internally — will be the story to watch this offseason.
While the Twins have plenty of internal options who have started at the major-league level, including many of those mentioned above, none besides Ober and Ryan appear to have shown enough to have earned a spot heading into 2022. While Dobnak would seem to be the closest, he struggled last year and then had his season sidetracked by a finger issue.
In the past few seasons, the Twins have filled rotation spots by bringing in veteran free-agent starters — Happ, Shoemaker, Rich Hill, Homer Bailey, Martín Pérez among them — on one-year deals.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Twins bring back Pineda, who has expressed interest in remaining in Minnesota and certainly wouldn’t break the bank in free agency, but even if they did, they will still need to address the top of their rotation.
Dodgers ace Max Scherzer, though 37, heads this year’s class of free-agent starting pitchers. Robbie Ray, who could be this year’s American League Cy Young Award winner, Kevin Gausman and Marcus Stroman, are among other top starters. All, of course, would require a hefty financial investment.
The Twins also have enough position player depth — or even prospect capital — to weather a trade from those ranks to help fill out the rotation.
In the pipeline
The Twins have a stable of young arms that they’ve been developing in the minors, though those in the group that make it to the majors in 2022 likely won’t be starting the season there.
Top pitching prospect Jordan Balazovic, the club’s No. 3 prospect per Baseball America, spent his season in Double-A, as did Simeon Woods Richardson, just 21, who was acquired for Berríos and is the team’s sixth-ranked prospect.
Winder (No. 4) and Duran (No. 9) are closer than those two, both having spent time in Triple-A last season. Their seasons were cut short due to injuries, so the Twins didn’t have a chance to see them at the major-league level. Drew Strotman, the team’s No. 12 prospect per BA, who was acquired with Ryan in the trade for Cruz, could also get a look at some point next season after spending 2021 at Triple-A.
Highly touted righty Matt Canterino (No. 7), who also dealt with injury during the 2021 season, is further out, but the Twins are excited about his future.