It's been common practice for Minnesota of late: inevitable injuries and underperformance leading to flimsy depth being tested. With underequipped fill-ins unable to answer the call, the Twins have gone through endless cycles of short-lived mediocrity.
Injuries and underperformance remain inevitable here in 2018, as ever, but finally the front office has built up enough depth to where a 'next man up' philosophy doesn't sound all that foreboding.
In fact, right now it's actually a little exciting.Projected Starting 5: Jose Berrios, Lance Lynn, Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson, Phil Hughes
Reinforcements: Ervin Santana, Adalberto Mejia, Trevor May, Aaron Slegers, Felix Jorge
Prospects: Fernando Romero, Stephen Gonsalves, Zack Littell, Blayne Enlow, Brusdar Graterol
Not so long ago, things looked quite grim for the Twins rotation. The club struck out in its pursuit of Yu Darvish and as spring training approached they hadn't added anyone of consequence. Then Ervin Santana's finger surgery was announced. Then... they signed Anibal Sanchez.
It was a low point. But it didn't last long.
Days after reaching agreement with Sanchez, the Twins pulled off a trade with Tampa to acquire Jake Odorizzi. Three weeks later they signed Lance Lynn, one of the top names on the free agent market.
By the time the Twins cut loose Sanchez, less than a month after signing him to a non-guaranteed contract, their starting unit had been reshaped. That low point felt like a distant memory. With Odorizzi and Lynn in the fold, the rotation is solidified, and it features a revitalizing medley of established quantities, intriguing youth, and pending reinforcements.
With Jose Berrios looking ready to take the next step, the Twins have a potential frontline type on hand, even with Santana set to miss the first month-plus.
Odorizzi, Lynn and Kyle Gibson look more like mid-rotation cogs, but fairly reliable ones (your mileage may vary on Gibson). Phil Hughes currently slots in at No. 5 and is tough to trust, but he can be hidden for much of April and won't have a long leash.
The rotation out of the gates doesn't boast a ton of upside beyond Berrios, but we find much more of that in the ensuing waves. Santana was of course Minnesota's top starter in 2017, and among the best in the American League. He should enter the picture sometime in May. Adalberto Mejia made 21 starts for the Twins as a 23/24-year-old in 2017 and showed he was capable. Trevor May has the stuff to make a real impact and will have plenty of time to sharpen up ahead of his June ETA.
Those three alone provide more viable rotation depth than the Twins have had in years. Even pitchers further down the board like Aaron Slegers and Felix Jorge are more appealing as MLB-ready spot start candidates than the Quad-A retreads that have typically been available over the past decade.
And then you start digging into the top prospects. Fernando Romero and Stephen Gonsalves, the organization's two best young arms that have yet to reach the majors, could be ready at any time. Zack Littell isn't far behind, nor is Lewis Thorpe. And promising teenagers Blayne Enlow and Brusdar Graterol figure to rise quickly.
The Twins have come a long, long way since 2016 when their rotation was an abominable disaster. There is enough depth, now and going forward, that it's hard to see things devolving to that point or anywhere close again.
While there are enough proven starters and legit prospects to inspire confidence that things won't unravel completely, the Twins still lack a credible ace, and are short on the types of overpowering arms you'd want to trot out in a playoff series.
Berrios showed major improvement last year but still profiled as more of a No. 3 on a championship contender. Lynn posted a 4.82 FIP in St. Louis. Odorizzi posted a 5.43 FIP in Tampa. We all recall how Gibson looked for much of the summer. And Hughes the finesse pitcher will be hard-pressed to get MLB hitters out consistently.
You can dream on this rotation but objectively it looks rather mediocre. The impending returns of Santana and May are somewhat heartening, but it could be June before either is ready. Will the Twins have dug a deep hole by then?
The team is sort of in a transitional period right now, with several veteran starters on short-term commitments and several prospects still needing to take their first lumps in the majors. Although Minnesota is likely on the verge of a true starting pitching breakthrough, it might realistically be another year away.
THE BOTTOM LINE
From 2016 to 2017, the Twins went from 30th to 19th in starting pitcher ERA, which is a hell of a step forward. But that was reliant on a Herculean effort from Santana, who is poised to miss a significant portion of the 2018 season.
In order to take another step and graduate to the top half of the league, Minnesota will need some other players to find that extra gear like Erv did last year. They'll also need some young hurlers to join in and find immediate success, which has been rare.
The pipeline is as strong and ripe as it's been in over a decade, but we still may need to wait just a little bit longer before it bears the fruit that can push this franchise over the hump.
~~~Catch up on the rest of the series:
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Catcher
Twins Daily Position Analysis: First Base
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Second Base
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Third Base
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Shortstop
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Left Field
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Center Field
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Right Field
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Designated Hitter
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