FORT MYERS, Fla. – The Twins’ search for starting pitching quality apparently begins with quantity. As in, nobody will even put a number on how many starting pitchers are in the competition for the opening day rotation.
With 31 pitchers reporting to big league camp, I asked Twins chief decision maker Derek Falvey how many arms they view as viable candidates for that role. Is it six pitchers? Eight? 20? Falvey said with a laugh that they’d consider a number of pitchers for the starting rotation, they’d stay “flexible” as long as possible by keeping pitchers stretched out for starting duty, and he indicated that it was somewhere between those estimates – between six and 20.
One tricky variable will be the number of innings available. As camp wears on and games get underway, starters will get to ramp up their workload. But the Twins won’t be able to build to a point – even with the help of ‘B’ games – where they can give 10 different pitchers a full starting load. Hector Santiago and J.O. Berrios will pitch in the World Baseball Classic, which frees up some innings in the middle of spring training, but it still will be a difficult and delicate math equation to find competitive innings to sort through the competition. Especially if there actually were 20 starters in consideration! (There aren’t.)
I asked manager Paul Molitor if he could narrow that range down a little bit. When Falvey’s answer was relayed to the manager, he got a kick out of it.
“I don’t know if I’d limit it to 8 or 9 guys,” Molitor said, “but I think we owe it to certain people to try to stretch them out up to 1, 2, 3 innings here.
“I’d like to have Berrios in here the whole spring, but with him and Santiago going [to WBC] that might open up a few more opportunities to extend guys. … I just don’t think that we have many people out in that room that are in a position to feel overly comfortable. And there’s obviously a few. But I’m open-minded about how it’s going to fill out, particularly at the bottom end,” Molitor said.
With that in mind, I talked to every starting pitching candidate – 11 in total – about his chances to make the opening day rotation. (If you want to include prospect Stephen Gonsalves on this list, you could bump the number to 12, but despite posting some eye-catching numbers in the minor leagues, it seems much more likely that he’d begin the season in the minor leagues.)
For Santana, there’s almost nothing that he has to show in spring training. He may not match his team-leading ERA from last season (3.38) but he’s the odds-on favorite to take the ball on opening day. Throughout his career Santana has been a durable and dependable starter and he’s a solid mid-rotation guy on a contending team. That made him the Twins’ ace last year. My only question on Santana as he enters his third season with Minnesota is whether he’ll finish his contract in a Twins uniform.
Santana has a home in Florida, and he spent time in the Dominican this winter getting ready for his 13th MLB season. He’s calm, like always, about what comes next for him. He’ll spend his spring training showing why he belongs in the starting rotation and getting ready for April 3rd. He’s also something of a mentor to several younger pitchers, a quasi-obligation that he said he welcomes because of the pitchers that helped him when he was the inexperienced one: John Lackey, Bartolo Colon, Kelvim Escobar and Francisco Rodriguez.
Hughes has a big contract and for some Twins observers, remains a big question mark. For me, the primary question mark is his health, and in that regard, it’s so far so good for Hughes. Last year Hughes had surgery to remove part of a rib to relieve the symptoms of thoracic outlet syndrome—the trendy arm issue that struck a handful of MLB starting pitchers last year. Oh, and for good measure to cap his awful season last year Hughes took a line drive off his leg that broke his femur.
This winter, Hughes hired a personal trainer to go live with him. He did the same thing last year, and he said that “whether my stuff was there, injuries or whatnot, I was really happy with the work I had [done] in the offseason.”
So he did that again this year, and added in some mobility focus for last year’s problem areas – his arm and knee – and says he’s had no setbacks and is a full-go now that spring is underway. He completed a throwing program at the end of last year and had the green light to run and do everything he’d want to do physically this offseason.
“It’s nice to come into spring and not have any worries about that stuff,” he said.
Now we’ll see where is fastball is at this spring after it was down a couple ticks last season, perhaps due to his injury.
I’m an advocate of moving May into the starting rotation after an attempt to make him into a dominant late-inning reliever had its ups and downs and his season was cut short due to a back injury.
May said he didn’t lift weights this offseason—but that doesn’t mean he didn’t work out. He incorporated a Pilates routine and continued chiropractic work to work on some of the imbalances that he believes led to his back pain and, ultimately, his stunted season.
May has the four-pitch mix and big frame consistent with the mental image many have of starting pitchers. He’s demonstrated an ability to get hitters swinging and missing his pitches, and his peripheral stats hint at a guy who could be successful in the extended workload of a starting pitcher.
He’s been through this dance before. The Twins said last year that he would be in the mix for the starting rotation, which was a crowded battle last spring too if you can believe that. After a tough outing in Sarasota against the Orioles, it seemed the Twins made their decision quickly that May would be in the bullpen. I believe the thinking at the time was that they wanted to emulate some of the teams that had a trio of aces in their ‘pen – the Royals, the Yankees and the Orioles, to name a few – with Glen Perkins, Kevin Jepsen and May. In retrospect, that plan wasn’t that close to working, and now I think May should be given more than a nominal opportunity to earn a rotation spot.
Kyle Gibson had an interesting offseason. It was fairly normal from a workout and throwing perspective, but he added an intriguing wrinkle: weighted ball work. Gibson said he went to work with Randy Sullivan at the Florida Baseball Ranch to get work with “connection balls” and “weighted balls.” The weighted balls are the size of a baseball and are simply heavier, which Gibson said helped him retrain his arm path during his delivery, from pronation to the neurological forces at play (muscle memory) as he cocks his arm to fire a pitch.
“Trying to clear my arm motion a little bit, hopefully make it a little bit more efficient and make my lower body a little bit better,” Gibson said. “Basically clean up stuff on the back end so that out front it’s a lot easier, less stress on my arm, less stress on my back.”
The theory is that this work could help Gibson avoid shoulder issues that he battled early last year.
If that goes according to plan, Gibson should have a spot in the rotation. He posted a high 5.07 ERA last year but that mark was 3.84 the year before, and as a groundball pitcher, a healthy Gibson expects to be one of the five guys standing when the dust settles on the starting rotation battle.
“I want everybody to pitch well,” Gibson said. “The more competition, the better for everybody. My goal is to go out there and prepare for a season and throw the ball well and hopefully make the decision easy on them.”
Santiago signed a one-year, $8 million contract this winter and will pitch for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. He’s a veteran of six big league seasons between the White Sox, Angels and Twins. He had a 5.58 ERA in 11 starts with the Twins after the trade deadline last year, but his career mark is 3.84.
He said his goal is to get better every season. And he’s certainly not taking a rotation spot for granted.
“Even when teams told me I had a spot, I’ve never taken anything for granted,” Santiago said.
He began his cardio routine in early December and said he prefers to report to spring training ready to go. That’s probably especially true this year, when he may have to show he belongs among the Twins’ starting 5, and when he’s going to ramp things up to pitch in the WBC. Depending on how that spring detour goes, it could work in his favor, or it could be a detriment to his chances. Either way, Santiago would seem to have a leg up because he’s a veteran with a track record. The Twins traded Ricky Nolasco, Alex Meyer and $4 million to the Angels last year to land the lefty Santiago—but remember, it was assistant general manager Rob Antony who pulled the trigger on that trade, and not current GM Thad Levine or front office leader Derek Falvey.
His mindset and his experience could help Santiago earn one of the starting spots. But one emerging theme with the new Twins’ leadership in the front office is that they don’t appear to want to write anything in pen. So viewed through that lens, it’s possible Santiago will need to prove he’s worthy of a spot.
Berrios has posted excellent minor league numbers and seems to have nothing left to prove at Triple-A. He’s better than hitters down there, and he’s made that fairly clear. What’s not yet clear is if he’s better than Major League hitters. His ERA doesn’t look like it after a rocky rookie season, but then, most evaluators believe he’s better than that 8.02 ERA.
He’s still just 22 years old, now has 14 big league starts under his belt, and has a renewed sense of confidence and optimism as he begins spring training this year.
Berrios said he did a similar workout regimen – which you can find on his Instagram account – with longtime trainer Josue Lionel in Puerto Rico. He’ll play around with bringing his glove over his head in his pitching windup in an effort to cut down on tipping his pitches. He said Ervin Santana, Ricky Nolasco and Neil Allen told him last year that they thought teams were able to pick up based on his glove placement whether he was about to throw a fastball or an offspeed pitch. Big league hitters are good enough that if you give them valuable information like that, you’ve dug yourself into a significant hole.
Berrios’ mentality last year was to make the team out of spring training, make the all-star team and win the American League Rookie of the Year award. He said his goal this year is to make the team and to help the team win. He’s a humble and confident kid with electric stuff and a minor league resume that strongly hints that he’ll be a successful big-league starter one day. He’ll pitch in the WBC for Puerto Rico.
I asked him his opinion on what would happen if there was a number crunch for the starting rotation. If the Twins came to him and asked him to pitch out of the bullpen, would he accept the assignment? He said he wants to remain a starting pitcher because that’s what he’s done his whole professional career. He’ll certainly be given that opportunity this spring. If his teammates stay healthy and prove effective in spring training, it’s possible Berrios would once again open the year in the minor leagues.
Tyler Duffey doesn’t feel like he needs to make a sales pitch for why he belongs in the starting rotation. If he executes his actual pitches, that would do all the talking for him.
Duffey has talked in the past about harnessing his emotions – he appears more frustrated on the mound than most Twins pitchers, and he’s the polar opposite of Santana in that regard. But it’s not the emotions that held him back last year, a disappointing season that saw him take a step back from his impressive 10-start rookie campaign.
Only two Twins pitchers logged more innings than Duffey last year and he struggled to a 6.43 ERA.
Duffey’s strongest weapon is his curveball. He’s struggled to incorporate a changeup in the past—which is something he worked on during spring training last year, and may have been part of the reason he was passed up for a rotation spot at this time last year. He also conceded that his fastball command wasn’t quite there from the start, and it’s why he’s vowed to be more ready to pitch from the jump, unlike last year, he said.
Duffey was a swing man reliever in college at Rice, and he said that if the Twins approached him about a move to the bullpen – where in theory his fastball-curve combo could play up over shorter stints – he’d be open to the idea.
Meet one of the most interesting unknown arms in Twins spring training. Mejia is the big lefty with a young C.C Sabathia-like frame who became a Twins prospect when Minnesota sent Eduardo Nunez to the Giants days before the non-waiver trade deadline.
Mejia says he has a healthy mix: fastball, slider, curve ball, and two different sinkers that he can use against lefties or righties. He said he’s gunning to be a starter, but he sounded well aware of the fact that there likely are some veteran pitchers in front of him in line for a job. He’s hanging around Ervin Santana in the early days of spring training.
The 23-year-old Dominican found his way onto Baseball America’s top-100 prospects list last year, although his one start with the Twins last season only last 2 1/3 innings and he gave up 5 hits and 2 earned runs. Across three minor league teams last season, Mejia posted a 3.00 ERA in 132 innings. He struck out 126 minor leaguers and walked 30 in that time.
Some teammates are calling him El Gato Grande, which is Spanish for the big cat. Some teammates, I’m told, have shortened that even further and simply are calling him “Garfield.”
Haley was the Twins’ pick in the Rule 5 draft this winter, meaning that if he doesn’t stay on the Twins’ 25-man roster all year he’ll either need to be offered back to his previous team or Minnesota will need to work out a trade to keep him in their minor league system. His goal is clear.
“No disrespect to the Red Sox or anything because I had a lot of good times there the last five years—but in all honesty I don’t want to go back,” Haley said.
Haley is in competition for the starting rotation but the Twins made it clear when they selected him this winter that he was capable of filling that role or becoming a reliever. He’s been mostly a starter in his minor league career with the Red Sox, but he said that anything the Twins ask him to do, he’s going to try to be the best at that.
Between two levels of the minors for the Red Sox last season, he posted a 3.01 ERA in 146 2/3 innings to go along with a 126:45 strikeout-to-walk ratio almost exclusively as a starter.
He pitched in winter ball in the Dominican Republic and wants to be ready a little bit earlier than an established veteran would need to be during spring training. He said he works to be aggressive with all his pitches and prides himself on attacking hitters.
Even with the roster implications for a Rule 5 selection, Haley probably faces a steep uphill battle to be named a starting pitcher. He’s more likely, in my opinion, to be in the competition for one of the seven bullpen spots. The Twins in recent years have sheltered Rule 5 relievers J.R. Graham and Ryan Pressly. Pressly seems like a nice find, but Graham didn’t work out in Minnesota and was unceremoniously given away early last year. Remember, though, that it was a different front office leader making those decisions, so the extent to which those moves can inform the current situation is limited.
Vogelsong is the old man of the group. His MLB career began in 2000 with the San Francisco Giants, and he’s also pitched for the Pirates and done a tour in Japan. After four seasons out of the Majors, he returned in 2011 for a second stint with the Giants and made the N.L. All-Star team that season. He posted a 2.71 ERA in about 180 innings in his reunion campaign. He’s pitched on two World Series winning teams (the Giants in 2012 and 2014).
He had a 4.81 ERA last year in Pittsburgh, a 4.67 ERA the year before that in San Francisco, and a 4.00 ERA on that World Series team in 2014. The last time he had an ERA better than 4.00 was in 2012, and his entire MLB career has been in the National League.
Now he brings his talents to the Twins and the American League looking to latch on this spring. He said this is a unique situation for him, in that he’ll really need to be game-ready early to compete for one of the five rotation spots. He said he doesn’t necessarily expect himself to be perfect, but he’ll need to be further along the readiness curve than many starters would need to be.
As a veteran, he’s well practiced at the art of ignoring outside noise and distractions, and he said his focus is on his mechanics and on his spring performance. One of his problem points last year was a walk rate that rose to 4.4 walks per 9 innings, and he attributed that rise to some intermittent issues with his mechanics and trying to hit the perfect spot every time rather than merely a good spot.
At this stage of his career, why the Twins?
Well, for one thing, the opportunity had to be intriguing. But Vogelsong also said that he favored Minnesota because he sees a lot of things in this team that he saw with the Houston Astros a few years ago, when they surged from doormat to contenders.
A Twins staffer stopped by locker inside the home clubhouse early in spring training. He communicated a short message about setting an example and providing a calming veteran presence for some of the team’s younger players.
Tepesch had an unusual year in 2016 and now he lands in Twins camp in part because of his familiarity with Twins GM Thad Levine, formerly of the Texas Rangers. Tepesch was a prospect in the Rangers’ organization and had known only that organization before the 2016 season.
Then he bounced between four different clubs in one season: the Rangers, Dodgers, A’s and Royals. This winter he signed with the Twins on a minor league contract and was invited to Twins’ spring training.
Now he’s 28 years old and after calling so many places home last season he’s probably looking for a little stability. He said his goal this spring is to show the Twins he can be a consistent pitcher who commands four different pitches. When asked about his put-away pitch, he said he tries to rely on all four, and will make the call depending on the situation and the hitter at the plate.
Pitching for four different Triple-A clubs last year, Tepesch combined to throw 116 innings with a 3.96 ERA and a 62:28 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In parts of 3 MLB seasons, he’s thrown 223 innings with a 4.68 ERA.
He’d be an extreme surprise to make the opening day rotation. His chances, though, are nonzero.