Rotating the Rotation: Is Jose Berrios Coming Up Soon?
Image courtesy of Seth StohsFast forward a month from Berrios’ demotion and two weeks from the end of spring training: How do the Twins’ decisions look?
It would be an understatement to say simply that Nolasco has been better than expected. Outside of one bad inning against the Angels, which the Twins managed to work around, Nolasco has given up just two runs in his 20.1 innings of work. His groundball rate is over 50 percent, which would be a career best by a substantial margin if he could keep it up, and he’s dropped his walk rate by nearly a full walk per nine. It’s a bit worrisome that his strikeout rate is well down from his career average -- which wasn’t particularly high to begin with -- but if that’s the tradeoff for his career best soft-contact rate and the improvements in his walk and home run rates, the Twins will take it. He’s not yet to the point of being obvious trade bait, but the Twins don’t need him to be. By the time the team needs his roster spot more than they need his production, a destination may reveal itself.
The terrible weather in upstate New York has jumbled the Rochester Red Wings’ schedule, but both Duffey and Berrios have gotten in three starts, though both were cut short in their first two outings. Duffey has been largely the same pitcher for the Red Wings so far that he was for the Twins last year: allowing more baserunners than one might like, but preventing them from scoring. By results, he still seems like a pitcher the Twins have tentatively penciled into their long term plan and are glad to have ready in case of injury, but he’s not forcing their hand yet.
Berrios, on the other hand, is getting sharp. He’s racked up 20 strikeouts in his 17 innings so far, allowed less than a baserunner per inning, and hasn’t allowed more than a run in any of his three starts.
The "Extra Year" deadline likely having already passed, Berrios could be called up at any point without the Twins risking losing him a year early, especially since it will be another week or so until he’s ready to start again following his seven-inning lockdown of the Pawsox on Thursday. The Twins weren’t just playing a service time game with Berrios, however, these starts were important for him to show that he was ready. He’ll need to look good again in his next outing, but assuming he does, he’s making a compelling case that he’s ready to help the major league team crawl back into contention.
The question is: Is there a spot for him in the rotation? Ervin Santana and Phil Hughes aren’t going anywhere, which leaves just two theoretical spots, Kyle Gibson’s and Milone’s. Neither pitcher is sporting a positive fWAR so far this season, but it’s something of a blunt tool without a bit more data behind it.
Gibson’s numbers don’t look great through three starts, but the Twins believe in him with good reason and while his first start was indeed a bomb, but the subsequent two have been much better. His spot’s safe unless he hits the All-Star break with about an 8.90 ERA and a WHIP that looks like a respectable high school GPA. So the timing of Berrios’ appearance in the majors likely depends on Milone.
Though he earned his spot in camp before Nolasco did, Milone seems as though he may be pulled back into the fray if he can’t right his ship in the next few starts. The optics are admittedly bad: He’s made it out of the fifth inning just once, he has allowed four runs in each of his starts, and he has given up 17 hits in just 15.1 innings pitched despite a BABIP almost precisely at his career average. His lines would look a bit better if he had been pulled after six innings in his start against the Angels instead of allowed to face Albert Pujols and Kole Calhoun, who took him deep, but the core issues would still be there: He’s giving up way too much contact and when 35 percent of it is classified as hard contact, it’s not hard to see why he keeps ending up in trouble.
Working against Milone is the fact that, even at his best, he’s something of a marginal starter. His lowest ERA in a season is 3.74, he doesn’t strike out a lot of hitters or generate a ton of groundballs; he gets by with timely outs and the occasional double play. He’s a survivor, an innings eater in the best of cases. It’s a profile the Twins have seen before in any number of other back-end-of-the-rotation guys, but their aspirations are higher this year than they’ve been in the recent past, making simply surviving a less desirable outcome, particularly when instead of eating innings, Milone is making extra work for the bullpen.
Nick Nelson caught a quirk from Milone this year that’s worth mentioning:
His velocity isn’t changing much the second or third time he’s seeing hitters and his release point is dropping fractionally, but not enough to explain a 900 point increase in opponents’ OPS. Absent those things, which would point to either fatigue or injury, the easiest explanation is that hitters are simply getting a good sense of how his pitches look and/or how he wants to sequence them (Alternatively, Milone could be tipping his pitches, but there aren’t any other symptoms of that). If they know what to expect, they can prepare and punish even decently executed offerings. If it is the case that Milone is simply predictable, it’s liable to get worse before it gets better as advance scouts figure out how best to prepare their players for his patterns.
If the Twins didn’t have Berrios in the minors and it was just Duffey who presented a serious threat to Milone’s spot, his leash would probably be longer than it is, but with the pitching staff needing a jump-start and Berrios seemingly ready to provide it, Milone’s general malaise surely hasn’t gone unnoticed. It’s good news for Berrios that it’s Milone who is struggling rather than Nolasco, as there are simply fewer ties that bind Milone to the majors. The Twins may not be looking for a reason to change Milone’s usage, but given how his season has gone, they’re also not keen to keep the status quo in place.
All things considered, the date to circle is May 23. A month away, it gives the Twins a chance to see if there’s something fixable with Milone, be sure that Berrios is ready, and utilize off days for Rochester to line up the rotation they way they want to slot Berrios in with the big club when necessary. The 23rd is also the first time -- assuming the Twins’ rotation doesn’t change -- Milone will face a team for the second time this year. If the Royals show preternatural familiarity with Milone and beat him up, it may force the front office to make a change whether they had planned on it or not.
- Sconnie and Platoon like this