Twins Rotation Is Starting Strong
Image courtesy of Evan Habeeb, USA Today (Jake Odorizzi)Needless to say, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine inherited a bit of a mess on the starting pitching front. The unit showed progress in 2017, moving from 30th to 19th in ERA, but now must take another step forward in order to solidify the club's status as a bona fide contender.
Against the Orioles, three key components of the front office's recipe were personified: proactivity, polish, and patience.
PROACTIVITY: Key Trade Acquisition Pays Immediate Dividends
Jake Odorizzi wasn't among the Twins pitchers who reported to Fort Myers in mid-February. He wouldn't be acquired until camp was already underway. But by the time spring training ended, he had earned the billing of Opening Day starter. And boy, did he look up the challenge on Thursday.
Unleashing a torrent of high four-seamers and low splitters, Odorizzi kept the Orioles off-balance and out-of-whack, allowing just two hits and two walks over six shutout frames while fanning seven.
By all accounts, Odorizzi's availability this offseason was no secret. In October, Tampa Bay Times beat writer Marc Topkin called him the Rays player "most likely to be dealt this winter," and in the ensuing months, Odorizzi was connected to multiple teams – including the Twins.
Tampa held out as long as possible, but ultimately, once camp started and they needed to finally pull the trigger, all they could extract was a mid-level infield prospect in Jermaine Palacios.
It was enough to make you wonder just what red flags the rest of the league's teams saw in Odorizzi. Starting pitching is forever in-demand, and here we had a 27-year-old former first-round pick with a reasonable salary, and a successful track record in the AL East. No one was willing to pony up more than a future utility man in Single-A? What gives?
Granted, injuries limited Odorizzi to 143 innings last year, and his peripherals were not pretty. But with his age and pedigree, he's the kind of guy you bet on, and so far the Twins look smart for doing so.
The same basic question that surrounds Odorizzi – "Why did no one else want this guy??" – also apply to Monday's starter, Lance Lynn. We'll see if the front office's other proactive addition can make a similarly strong first impression in Pittsburgh.
POLISH: Gibson's Improvements Carry Over
Yes, Falvey and Levine needed to bring in some outside talent to bolster the rotation. But another key element of turning the unit around was getting more out of its existing assets.
Kyle Gibson was a prime candidate for repair. In many ways, he's the prototype for an effective major-league starting pitcher: tall, lean and cerebral, with ample velocity and heavy sinking stuff. His sinker can be a grounder machine and his slider has bordered on elite at times. But shaky command, inconsistent mechanics, and health issues have continually plagued him.
I'm not ready to say Gibson is out of the woods, but he looks like a different player these days. Somewhere around the middle of last summer, a light-bulb flickered for the right-hander. He made some noticeable tweaks – changing his arm slot, shifting on the rubber, altering his repertoire – and suddenly looked like the sturdy workhorse we've been waiting for all along.
His reinvention carried over to the mound this spring, but that meant little, given his history of dominating the Grapefruit League before fizzling in the regular season. He knows that.
"Too many times in the past I've had that approach in the spring, and then for whatever reason change it when I get into the season," Gibson said after an outstanding spring performance against the Rays in March. "I learned a lot toward the end of the year last year – how my pitches work and how using the fastball differently can help."
He's referring, in part, to a tactic that Mr. Odorizzi specializes in – high four-seamers. Gibson has often in the past eschewed that pitch but used it heavily on Saturday, as he did throughout the latter weeks of 2017. Gibson's command was characteristically imperfect, but this time he made it work, firing six hitless innings despite five walks.
He will need to keep it going before regaining the full confidence of fans at large, but according to Game Score, his first start of 2018 was better than any of his 29 in 2017. With new pitching coach Garvin Alston garnering positive early reviews, and a vaunted brain trust in baseball operations, it's easy to feel good about the Twins getting the most out of their arms.
Phil Hughes will probably present their biggest challenge yet. We'll see how that goes.
PATIENCE: Berrios Arrives
Odorizzi was great on Thursday. Gibson was even better on Saturday. But on Easter Sunday, Jose Berrios blew them both away with his tour de force: an utterly dominant complete-game shutout.
Sure, the Twins probably did some polishing with Berrios, but really, what was required in his case is patience. He dominated every level of the minors, but arrived in the big leagues as an undersized 21-year-old. His tumultuous rookie experience wasn't all that surprising, nor his massive improvement in Year 2.
Now, as he enters his first full season as a big-leaguer, Berrios appears to be pulling it all together. Also not surprising.
"Every year I get to know my body and myself more," Berrios told me this spring. His first start of 2018 was certainly reflective. The 23-year-old was in control from start to finish against the Orioles, deploying his devastating arsenal with more precision than we've ever seen before during his time in a Twins uniform. "What a clinic," said one scout in attendance.
Patience might pay off in more way than one the Twins front office. Fernando Romero is expected to open the season at Class-AAA Rochester, and could wind up being one of the most impactful rookie additions to a major-league pitching staff this season. Stephen Gonsalves, Zack Littell, Lewis Thorpe and others are all verging on MLB-ready.
It's natural to get overly excited about such a spectacular showing in the season's first three games. But what we saw from the Twins rotation in Baltimore was no fluke. This was by design.
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