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If the Twins have ever fielded a better and deeper rotation than the one they're set to line up this year, I can't remember it.

 

From top to bottom (and beyond) this unit looks stacked.Projected Rotation: Kenta Maeda, José Berríos, Michael Pineda, J.A. Happ, Matt Shoemaker

Depth: Randy Dobnak, Devin Smeltzer, Lewis Thorpe, Bailey Ober

Prospects: Jhoan Duran, Jordan Balazovic, Matt Canterino, Blayne Enlow, Cole Sands

 

THE GOOD

 

Let's start at the top. Kenta Maeda: The long-awaited ace and reigning Cy Young runner-up.

 

Maeda's first year in a Minnesota uniform yielded the best performance we've seen from a Twins starting pitcher since Johan Santana left town. One of the great sadnesses of the shortened 2020 season was that we didn't get to see him do more of it.

 

From his first turn to his last, Maeda was superb. He never gave up more than three runs in a game, or more hits than innings pitched in a start. His whiff rate was third-highest in the game behind Jacob deGrom and Lucas Giolito.

 

Maeda shut down Houston with five shutout innings in the playoffs. A month prior, he came within three outs of no-hitting Milwaukee at Target Field. With an offspeed-heavy mix and impeccable command, he left opposing batters helpless.

 

 

This was a different version of Maeda than we ever saw in Los Angeles, where he was more good than great, leading to natural questions about how repeatable the breakout is. Indeed, the righty probably won't be quite so thoroughly dominant in a full-length follow-up, but there's little reason to think he won't be a credible rotation-fronter.

 

The question is whether José Berríos will join him in that category. He's a very good starter, and one of the most reliably durable in the game, but Berríos hasn't quite been able to take that step into the highest tier despite flirting with it frequently.

 

Last season might look like a setback, at a glance – his 4.00 ERA and 1.32 WHIP were both highest since Berríos' rocky debut in 2016. But they're also misleading, and emblematic of 2020's small-sample haziness.

 

He gave up five runs in four innings against Chicago on Opening Day. From that point forward, the righty posted a 3.51 ERA and 1.27 WHIP, holding opponents to a .225 average. Same old Berríos. That's not including his postseason start against Houston, where he allowed one run on two hits in five frames.

 

We'll see if he can find something more, and if he does, the Twins will boast one of the league's best 1-2 punches in the rotation. But they'd also be happy to get that same old Berríos again, because his baseline is a pretty damn good. And also: Minnesota has another underrated starter in the frontline discussion.

 

Michael Pineda is finally coming into a season unhindered by injury rehab or suspension. When on the mound for Minnesota, he has consistently pitched well, and the Twins have played .677 baseball. He's 32 and playing for his next contract with free agency upcoming. As Twins GM Thad Levine put it, Pineda "has put himself in the best position he can to have a robust second chapter to his career.”

 

 

J.A. Happ is not a super flashy addition at age 38, but he's been basically as good as Berríos over the past handful of seasons, and he's a great asset as your fourth starter. Matt Shoemaker rounds out the rotation as a $2 million flier who probably has a 50/50 shot at lasting until the All-Star break. But as with any signing by this front office, there's upside here that's easy to see.

 

The offseason additions might not have been too exciting, but what does excite about Minnesota's rotation picture this year is the internal depth. Randy Dobnak and Lewis Thorpe both offer plenty of intrigue, especially with their buzz-stirring spring camps. Devin Smeltzer is a better eighth option than most other teams have. And that's before you turn to the farm.

 

The Twins' top three pitching prospects – Jhoan Duran, Jordan Balazovic, Matt Canterino – are verging on big-league ready. It's hard to say for sure since the 2020 minor-league season was wiped out, but had it been played, it's very possible any of those three would now be banging on the door – if not already debuted.

 

Each is capable of a serious impact in short order, and the Twins are quietly counting on that to some degree.

 

THE BAD

 

One might argue the Twins have been extraordinarily lucky with the health of their starting pitchers over the past couple years. (Jake Odorizzi and Homer Bailey would disagree, but they're gone.)

 

Berríos has continued to take the mound every fifth day, as usual.

 

Maeda did the same in 2020, while transitioning from starter-reliever hybrid to relative workhorse. He experienced no issues, even after accruing a career-high 115 pitches in his no-hit bid.

 

Pineda, so often injured before coming to Minnesota, has been perfectly healthy outside of the suspension. (Phantom DL stints not withstanding.)

 

I'm not over here to trying to jinx anything. But it has to be acknowledged that this probably won't last forever. The rigors of being a starting pitcher in the major leagues are immense, and right now these guys are grappling with the transition back to a full-season workload, in the wake of 2020's disruption.

 

If one of those top three starters goes down? Suddenly the Twins rotation doesn't look quite so sturdy anymore.

 

Happ might be a nice luxury in the back half, but he's not necessarily someone you want to be depending on toward the front. Shoemaker, Dobnak, Thorpe and Smeltzer all have their own varying levels of promise and mystique, but also serious hurdles to overcome. The top prospects may well all need more seasoning,

 

These aren't unique problems – all pitchers across the league will be facing the same readjustment challenges this year, and no team has infinite starting depth – but the Twins will need a bit of luck on their side to fulfill their potential in the rotation.

 

They're relying heavily on some internal developments playing out well, because it's questionable whether the free agent talent incoming (Happ, Shoemaker) is better than the talent outgoing (Odorizzi, Rich Hill). Questionable might be putting it kindly.

 

THE BOTTOM LINE

 

This is a deep, well-rounded group with a high ceiling and a number of electrifying wild cards in play. Odorizzi is a significant loss, which should not be discounted, but the fact is, the Twins managed to post the second-best rotation ERA, FIP, and fWAR in the American League last year without him.

 

An important thing to keep in mind is that, by retaining all prospect capital in the offseason, the Twins have positioned themselves nicely for a trade as the deadline approaches. That'll probably be a big storyline this summer, but I'm more eager to see what the system can provide internally after four years of remarkable progression under the new front office.

 

"After four years of assembling the infrastructure and creating a culture of fearless development," wrote Dan Hayes at The Athletic recently, "the Twins front office feels as if its pitching pipeline is finally ready to churn out impressive arms at a more consistent rate."

 

Their exhaustive work will be put to the test in what's certain to be a daunting and discombobulating year for MLB starting pitchers, with workloads thrown askew.

 

READ OTHER 2021 POSITION ANALYSIS ARTICLES

 

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Twins FO has done a wonderful job maximizing the talent for the payroll (and I am usually more critical than complimentary). 

 

The starting rotation is very well positioned... for the regular season.

 

We still need someone to reach the level of dependable ACE for deep run in the post season (hello Broken Record... I'm Skipping CD!). It is possible that one of our top two can elevate to be THAT guy and remotely possible that one of our prospects make an enormous leap.

 

BUT, most likely, if the team is as successful in the regular season as we hope... We will need to leverage our deep farm system to get THAT Guy at the trade deadline (...if available... Big If).

 

In short, I don't see the Frank Viola or Jack Morris in the rotation...yet

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If the Twins have ever fielded a better and deeper rotation than the one they're set to line up this year, I can't remember it.

 

You don’t remember last few seasons? :)

 

I like Odorizzi at #3 more than Pineda, by a mile. I didn’t mind Gibson, who wasn’t great, but whose worst sin to Twins fans was having a name that rhymed with “nibble.”

 

I don’t mind Happ, and one of the younger guys might surprise, but.. we’ll see.

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You don’t remember last few seasons? :)

I like Odorizzi at #3 more than Pineda, by a mile. I didn’t mind Gibson, who wasn’t great, but whose worst sin to Twins fans was having a name that rhymed with “nibble.”
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Gibson rhymes with nibble?  Or did you mean Kyle rhymes with nibble?  Neither rhymes with nibble....

 

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Maeda has pitched 25 times in the playoffs and has a 2.87 ERA. Jack Morris had a 3.80 career ERA in the playoffs. Just saying.

 

Ugh... a bit like comparing Oranges to Orangutans, No?

 

Where to start, where to start... Well Maeda has 4 post season starts where he appears to have averaged 3.8 innings. His other 20-ish so appearances were in relief where he averaged around 1 inning an appearance.

 

Jack Morris had 5 complete games in the playoffs, 3 coming in the WS, one of which happens to be the greatest post season start ever. Though fantastic, his stats are a bit diluted by a rough post season in his age 37 year with Toronto.

 

Jack Morris also pitched in the AL his whole career with DHs

 

I am pumped we have Maeda and think he can elevate. Nick, you along with Parker, are my favorite TD writers.

 

But with all due respect, comparing Jack Morris with Maeda...just no

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There's certainly a lot to like about the rotation. And it is the best rotation that they've had in some time. However, that's a pretty low bar. It might even be good enough to win a playoff game, which shouldn't be the monumental achievement this team has made it into. But I still don't see it being good enough to win a playoff series. And frankly, playoff success is all that I really care about.

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That is a great article by Dan Hayes on the Athletic. Talks about the process and how it doesn't happen overnight. Some good nuggets on Winder and Canterrino as well.

 

I love our staff and the depth behind it. Dobnak is missing bats like Kershaw this spring! Happ is more reliable than Odo. A full year if Pineda and hoping for a breakout year from Jose. Personally I like Shoemaker as a 2-3 innings guy, but time will tell.

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That is a great article by Dan Hayes on the Athletic. Talks about the process and how it doesn't happen overnight. Some good nuggets on Winder and Canterrino as well.

I love our staff and the depth behind it. Dobnak is missing bats like Kershaw this spring! Happ is more reliable than Odo. A full year if Pineda and hoping for a breakout year from Jose. Personally I like Shoemaker as a 2-3 innings guy, but time will tell.

 

I am with you on Shoemaker. If Dobnak continues to look this good, I think he gets the 5th spot and Shoemaker works out of the BP. Let's hope that's the way it goes because the long-term implications are better if Dobnak is too good to keep out of the rotation.

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Jack Morris had 5 complete games in the playoffs, 3 coming in the WS, one of which happens to be the greatest post season start ever. Though fantastic, his stats are a bit diluted by a rough post season in his age 37 year with Toronto.

 

Jack Morris also pitched in the AL his whole career with DHs

You can lay out all the caveats but the fact remains: Morris was pretty mediocre in the playoffs outside of that one greatest postseason start ever (4.26 ERA in 12 starts). It's true that Maeda's been used differently, but he has risen to the occasion in his role very consistently. 

 

Morris' greatest asset as a postseason starter was durability and piling up complete games. He was used in a way that no modern manager (certainly not Baldelli) would ever use a starting pitcher today. So yeah, it is an oranges-to-orangutans comparison but I'd rather have the current version of Maeda than Morris at any point in his career. Morris was never this good. 

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Thanks Nick. Informative thoughtful articles in this series. I really appreciate Twins Daily, especially since I live in North Carolina and we get very little coverage of the Twins here. Plus I can write my 2 cents worth here and I feel comfortable doing it, even if we sometimes agree to disagree. This is really a way this fan of this franchise for  the last 66 years, can keep up with this team in a unique and informative way, have thoughtful discussions about the Twins and baseball.  I just want to say thank you to the owners, moderators, writers, contributors and the fans. You are all the best. 

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You don’t remember last few seasons? :)

I like Odorizzi at #3 more than Pineda, by a mile. I didn’t mind Gibson, who wasn’t great, but whose worst sin to Twins fans was having a name that rhymed with “nibble.”

I don’t mind Happ, and one of the younger guys might surprise, but.. we’ll see.

In which of the last few seasons would you say the Twins had a better and deeper rotation than this one? You might say last year, with the hindsight of knowing Maeda would break out, but then you'd also have the hindsight of knowing Odo would be completely unavailable. 

 

Also ,at no point in my recollection have they had this many high-caliber pitching prospects on the doorstep, which is a key part of that assertion. 

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Last season might look like a setback, at a glance – his 4.00 ERA and 1.32 WHIP were both highest since Berríos' rocky debut in 2016. But they're also misleading, and emblematic of 2020's small-sample haziness.


He gave up five runs in four innings against Chicago on Opening Day. From that point forward, the righty posted a 3.51 ERA and 1.27 WHIP, holding opponents to a .225 average. Same old Berríos.

Also emblematic of 2020: the White Sox were the only offense that the Twins and Berrios faced in the regular season that ranked higher than 20th overall in runs per game. Our non-White Sox opponents hit a combined .228 overall. Berrios had a 25.1% K%, but among teams that had a combined 24.9% K%.

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Maeda has pitched 25 times in the playoffs and has a 2.87 ERA. Jack Morris had a 3.80 career ERA in the playoffs. Just saying.

 

You can lay out all the caveats but the fact remains: Morris was pretty mediocre in the playoffs outside of that one greatest postseason start ever (4.26 ERA in 12 starts). It's true that Maeda's been used differently, but he has risen to the occasion in his role very consistently. 

 

Morris' greatest asset as a postseason starter was durability and piling up complete games. He was used in a way that no modern manager (certainly not Baldelli) would ever use a starting pitcher today. So yeah, it is an oranges-to-orangutans comparison but I'd rather have the current version of Maeda than Morris at any point in his career. Morris was never this good. 

 

Nick, I think you are being a little harsh on Morris here. He was brilliant in both the 1984 and 1991 postseasons; he was mediocre in 1987 but it was only 1 start. He was dismal in 1992, but he was also 37 years old and at the very end of his line as an effective MLB pitcher -- something not yet included in Maeda's career numbers.

 

Through 1987, his age-32 season (same as Maeda in 2020), Morris had a 3.00 postseason ERA (albeit in only 4 starts). Through 1991, that went down further to 2.60. It was only the 1992 postseason that drags Morris' career postseason numbers down, and not coincidentally he was completely done as an effective MLB pitcher after that point.

 

Maeda has also accumulated most of his postseason innings out of the bullpen so far, which still count of course but that furthers the oranges-to-orangutans nature of the comparison. Through age 32, Maeda has 4 career postseason starts just like Morris did, but with a 4.60 ERA in them.

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I thought all along Odorizzi would be back. I'm surprised he's not. Why he's not is moot at this point. For this ONE YEAR that is 2021, reflective of Happ's age, I believe any 2 of 3 of Pineda, Happ and Oddo are the same quality of pitcher. So I'm good with 3-4 and love our top 2.

 

Shoemaker was a smart sign. He could be about the best #5 SP in the league if healthy enough for 22/23 starts. If I could be guaranteed he'd be available for 14 and just be his normal career self, I'd still be happy. Because by the end of the season you don't only have Donnak and Thorpe, but you've got at least a couple more arms that are probably ready to make their debuts.

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Thanks for a great article, Nick, and a lively discussion.

 

I continue to wonder why so many continue to clamor for the Twins to go out and get an ACE. In my opinion, that's exactly what they did a year ago. If Maeda isn't an ACE, well then there ain't more than one in the American League.

 

Love the top two and depth of this starting rotation. And after coming off a season that was only 60 games long, depth is gonna be huge this year, HUGE. So I am comfortable with the staff going into the season. For that reason I assume we are going to need at least eight starters during the season, not including a few starts by callups for double headers.

 

Will also agree with the above comments regarding Dobber, who I believe will not be the Twins #5 starter. Why, because he is gonna be their #3 or #4 best starter.

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If postseason performance is a criteria, keep in mind Pineda has never appeared in a postseason game.

(That’s not predictive, but it probably says something important.)

Not that he's been particularly great over his career, but Pineda's postseason absence hasn't had much to do with his performance. Here are the only times his teams made the postseason:

 

2015 - Yankees lost the wild card game. Tanaka started and Pineda wasn't on the roster for that game, but he likely would have been in their 4-man rotation had they advanced.

 

2017 - Pineda had TJ surgery midseason, thus was unavailable when the Yankees made the playoffs

 

2019 - suspended, ineligible

 

2020 - 3rd starter on a team eliminated after just 2 games

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So yeah, it is an oranges-to-orangutans comparison but I'd rather have the current version of Maeda than Morris at any point in his career. Morris was never this good. 

You don’t think Morris ever had 11-game starting stretches as or more dominant than Maeda just had in 2020? You’d be wrong. Not with the Twins...but with Detroit. Multiple times. (And to be fair to Morris, the 66.2 innings Maeda pitched in 2020 would only be the equivalent of 8 or 9 Morris starts.) Also pretty disingenuous to suggest Morris was ‘average’ (or worse) in the post season when his numbers are skewed by a disastrous age 37 campaign....a career stage Maeda will have to go a ways to even have a chance to match. Morris was 7–4 in the postseason and across the 7 wins he was required to AVERAGE 8.2 innings per start. 8 and 2/3 average start across the 7 wins. No opportunity to duck the meat of the batting order the 3rd time through...or the 4th.

 

So, yeah...you should have left it at ‘it’s oranges to orangutans’.

 

In the meantime, I’m thinking Maeda is going to be very good in 2021...and am still hoping he can help Berrios somehow in Jose’s ongoing quest to attain elite command, because Maeda certainly has it.

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Nick, I think you are being a little harsh on Morris here.

You're probably right. I respect Morris' career but I think he's generally pretty overrated, and I'm so drained on hearing him always invoked as a "grass-is-greener" playoff rotation lament. He had great moments in the postseason, including maybe the greatest moment, but he was hardly infallible. 

The nature of the game was so different then compared to now, it feels completely pointless to bring his name up. Managers don't use starters in that same way, and are finding plenty of success anyway. Clayton Kershaw & Walker Buehler collectively pitched past the 6th inning once in 10 playoff starts last year. Kevin Cash routinely pulled his starters after a couple turns through the lineup. 

In the context of baseball as it is now, Maeda has been extremely effective in the playoffs. And that's what matters. 

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