Twins 2019 Position Analysis: Starting Pitcher
Image courtesy of Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY SportsProjected Starters: Jose Berrios, Kyle Gibson, Michael Pineda, Jake Odorizzi, Martin Perez
Depth: Adalberto Mejia, Stephen Gonsalves, Kohl Stewart, Zack Littell, Chase De Jong
Prospects: Brusdar Graterol, Jhoan Duran, Lewis Thorpe, Blayne Enlow, Gonsalves
It's been a long time since the Twins have boasted this kind of quality atop their rotation. Berrios and Gibson each ranked among the top 15 American League starters in WAR last year (per FanGraphs), and both are poised to sustain their excellence on the backing of legitimate high-powered stuff.
Their respective bursts of brilliance were balanced by stretches of steady solidness, leading to overall results that were well above average. And each proved admirably durable, answering the call every fifth day and setting new career highs for workload while tossing almost 200 innings apiece.
A pair of stallions fronting the rotation is nice obviously, but it's not unprecedented for the modern Twins. Two years ago they had Berrios breaking out alongside Ervin Santana. Going back a little further, to the last playoff team, Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano presented a memorable pairing.
But what the Twins lacked in both those instances was a viable third horse. In Pineda, they might finally have one. After rehabbing him from Tommy John surgery in 2018, the Twins are now looking to cash in on their $10 million investment from a year ago. When healthy, Pineda is a big bad man pumping mid-90s heat from a 6-foot-7 frame, piling up whiffs and strikeouts at rates that overshadow Berrios or Gibson.
The back part of the rotation is less distinguished, but not without intrigue. Odorizzi averaged a strikeout per inning last year and was perfectly serviceable in his worst MLB season. He's playing for a contract at age 29. Perez seemed like a low-wattage pickup but is raising eyebrows with mid-90s heat (and strong results) in spring camp.
Even when accentuating their positives, we must acknowledge the uncertainty with players like Pineda and Perez, which is why depth looms large. And while you can knock the dearth of established credentials in Minnesota's second starter tier, the reality is that this inexperience is a necessary evil.
If calamity strikes the Twins rotation, it's a sign the season is probably not headed anywhere meaningful. In that scenario, the team needs to get extended looks at pitchers like Gonsalves, Stewart, Mejia and Littell. These are all respectable talents with strong minor-league résumés, ready for their MLB shots. While contention is a hopeful aspiration for Minnesota this year, the absolute imperative is to gain more clarity around what they have going forward, especially in a rotation that is almost totally undefined after 2019.
And these guys are no scrubs. Each of them offers his own legitimate level of promise, especially with an innovative new pitching coach on hand. Stewart is a former top draft pick with sinking stuff as heavy as any hurler you'll find. Gonsalves has a 2.46 ERA in the minors and is catching eyes with increased velocity this spring. Mejia has looked capable in every MLB stint. Littell pitched his way to a big-league debut at age 22. Thorpe, who has yet to get his first chance in the majors, is another prospect with real upside who's close.
I can't remember the Twins ever having this degree of first-level depth. If multiple injuries strike the rotation there is certainly no assurance this starting corps will fare well, but there will at least be value in giving starts to the replacements.
Unless Berrios or Gibson take a step forward, there's no real ace in this deck. The Twins are lacking compared to pretty much every other contender when it comes to a #1 starter. One of their highest-ceiling options is evidently out of the picture for 2019, with Fernando Romero billed for the bullpen. Even the best-case scenarios for guys like Stewart and Mejia and Gonsalves slate them more as middle-of-rotation guys than frontliners.
It wouldn't be stunning to see Berrios or Gibson (or even Pineda) graduate to that top tier of starters, but there's no tangible reason to expect it. And realistically, the Twins probably shouldn't be counting on much from Pineda or Perez, given their recent histories. You might lump Odorizzi into that group also.
Their extended mix of starting pitchers is respectable, and very possibly the best Minnesota has carried into a season since the division title days. But it's not flashy or fierce, relative to those clubs the Twins are trying to pass – namely the Indians, who project as vastly superior.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Among players lined up for the Opening Day rotation, only one (Berrios) is under team control after this year. The Twins have an option on Perez, which could prove sneaky beneficial given that he's only 27 and throwing as well in camp as ever, but we're talking about a guy who posted a 6.22 ERA last year.
If none of the expiring contracts (Gibson, Pineda, Odorizzi) prove worth extending, and no one emerges from the crop of borderline Triple-A arms, the Twins will find themselves searching for pitching answers via the free agent and trade markets that they steadfastly eschewed this past winter.
So the long-term outlook here is somewhat questionable. But for the immediate future, this team has no shortage of worthwhile arms to trot out for starts.
You've gotta really lean toward the bright side to see a unit that's anything more than average, but if the offense holds up its end, maybe that's all the Twins need.
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