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  • Here's Why the Twins Haven't Gone Hard After Pitching


    Nick Nelson

    There's been a lot of frustration expressed over the Twins and their unwillingness to spend on free agent pitching. 

    I share that frustration. I'm not going to defend it here. I'm just going to try and explain the likely reasoning behind it.

    Image courtesy of Ed Bailey, Wichita Wind Surge (Jordan Balazovic)

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    Aaron Gleeman penned a great piece for The Athletic last week addressing the team's hesitance to spend on pitching. This has been a trend for years, and now has become a glaring oddity, given the severe need for rotation help.

    Unless they sign Carlos Rodón (unlikely), it is clear the Twins have actively decided to bow out of the high-end free agent pitching market this offseason. They had money in hand, and yet they let every frontline type fall off the board, with no signs of serious pursuit.

    Why? Part of it undoubtedly ties to a fundamental aversion to risk, but I think there are deeper strategic underpinnings. 

    When you look at the organization's pitching pipeline, and the number of MLB-ready arms that need to be evaluated, it becomes a bit easier to understand the desire for extreme flexibility.

    A pipeline ready to pay off

    It's no secret: this front office was brought in to develop pitching. That was Cleveland's specialization when Derek Falvey was there, and it's been a calling card of successful mid-market organizations over the years. 

    There seems to be a sense that Falvey has fallen short in this regard, but we're judging an incomplete picture. Realistically it takes around five years or so to draft-and-develop a pitcher. This regime had a minor-league season wiped out by COVID in their fourth.  

    When you look at the proliferation of intriguing arms in the system that are approaching MLB-readiness, the plan appears to be on track following a jarring disruption. 

    All of these pitching prospects could feasibly be listed with an ETA of 2022:

    • Jordan Balazovic, RHP (23 next season)
    • Jhoan Duran, RHP (24)
    • Josh Winder, RHP (25)
    • Cole Sands, RHP (24)
    • Chris Vallimont, RHP (25)
    • Simeon Woods Richardson, RHP (21)
    • Drew Strotman, RHP (25)
    • Matt Canterino, RHP (24)
    • Louie Varland, RHP (24)

    When I say these are "interesting" pitching prospects, I don't mean, "These are guys with raw stuff who could put up numbers if they figure things out." They've all put up numbers. In some cases, ridiculous numbers. Most of them have reached the high minors, and nearly all are at an age where good prospects tend to take the big-league step.

    Are the Twins viewing 2022 as a season to fully evaluate the quality of these pitchers and assess the strategy they've been developing for half a decade? It seems that way to me. 

    What to expect after the lockout

    If this theory is correct, it doesn't mean the Twins are going to stand idly and let Dylan Bundy be their only pitching addition. None of the prospects mentioned above will be ready to go out of the gates, barring an unforeseen spring development. But it does mean they'll likely continue to avoid larger investments in pitchers, and the commitments those entail.

    I wouldn't be surprised to see them sign one or two of the better mid-tier starters remaining – say, Zack Greinke or Michael Pineda – and then round out the staff with a bunch of hybrid starter/reliever types who can contribute bulk innings while offering some upside. I outlined what a model might look like in practice back in early November.

    This model would be ideal for gradually bringing along young rookie starters in a controlled setting. You're not asking them to go out and throw six innings every fifth day, which none are physically built up to do. You're simply asking them to let loose and impact games. Maybe even win some games.

    Is this a "rebuild"?

    Falvey has bristled at the notion his team is headed for a rebuild in 2022. "I'm not using that word," he told reporters. Is he off base? 

    Even if the approach I've put forth above is accurate, I think it's fair to steer away from such a characterization. "Rebuild" implies having no real aspiration to contend, but rather starting anew with a long-term scope. The Twins aren't starting anew. They're sticking with the rebuilding plan that's already been in place throughout this front office's tenure.

    These internally-developed arms were always going to the hold the key to Falvey and Thad Levine's vision for a sustainable winner. It's time to get a gauge on the validity of that vision.

    A prototype to follow

    Looking back through franchise history, we can find a pretty decent parallel for what a youthful takeover of the rotation could look like: the 2008 season.

    That season, too, had the makings of a rebuild on the surface. Minnesota traded Johan Santana for prospects during the previous offseason, while letting Torii Hunter walk. They didn't go out and make any big moves in free agency. 

    The rotation ended up being led by Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, and Glen Perkins. Of those four, only Baker had more than 100 innings of major-league experience coming into the campaign. All were between 24 and 26 years old.

    Ironically, the biggest misstep by the front office that year was signing Liván Hernández under the pretense that this young group of starters needed a veteran leader. Hernández posted a 5.48 ERA over 23 starts before being cut in August to make room for Francisco Liriano – another young starter who rounded out the youth-led rotation.

    That youth-led rotation proved very capable. The Twins came within a game of a postseason berth, thanks in part to a solid offense led by a pair of MVP contenders in Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer. 

    The 2022 Twins offense, led by Byron Buxon, Jorge Polanco and others, will have a chance to win if they get any help from the pitching. Why can't that help come primarily from the internal pipeline? It's happened before.

    A learning year

    Despite my efforts here to understand and justify the front office's lack of aggressiveness on the pitching market, I can't deny that the youth movement plan is a long shot. For every example like the 2008 Twins, there are plenty more where inexperience doomed a young rotation.

    But I'd argue that even in that scenario, the coming season can be a valuable one. They can throw numerous guys into the fire, take stock of what they've got, and assess their needs going forward more accurately. 

    Ideally, they'll add at least one more moderately good free agent starter and another impact arm via trade, so as to improve their odds and lessen the total reliance on unknowns. But as a general course of action, I don't hate the idea of letting the pipeline produce.

    It's not the start of a rebuild. It's the summation of a rebuild that was initiated six years ago when Falvey and Levine first took over. 

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    "Ideally, they'll add at least one more moderately good free agent starter and another impact arm via trade, so as to improve their odds and lessen the total reliance on unknowns. But as a general course of action, I don't hate the idea of letting the pipeline produce." - Nick Nelson

    Nick, you write a good justification for the young starters getting their chance as support for the inaction of the Twins front office thus far this offseason. The idea of letting the prospects pitch is widely accepted, by most, seemingly. There are twelve waiting their turn: Dobnak, Ober, Ryan, Duran, Winder, Balazovic, Woods-Richardson, Strotman, Sands, Canterino, Vallimont, and Varland. It is a good group. Maybe three do well, three go to the bullpen, three fail, and three get traded. There is really not much pitching left as free agents and if the budget needs to be near $100 million, signings costs more than trades. I'm excited to see a few of these guys get acclimated, but I'm in favor of adding two pitchers to the top of the rotation via trade.

    The Twins have a decent core of everyday players and a smoother transition into MLB is possible with pitchers like Chris Bassitt and Frankie Montas leading the way. Let the pipeline fill out the rest of the rotation. It's a gamble but I don't hate that at all. 

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    I like the article and the reasoning, but don't completely like the suggested approach. I think the move is to re-sign Pineda and trade for one of Bassitt, Montas, Lopez, Gray or Mahle. I like Basstit and Gray the best - veteran guys without long term deals so hopefully the prospect cost won't be to high and won't have to include more than one of the pitchers listed above and won't include Winder, Balzovic, or Sands.  I think Montas, Mahle or Lopez will cost 2 or 3 guys on that list and certainly won't be available for hitting prospects. 

    I think you're right on the FO strategy. This year it's trade starter,  Pineda, Ober, Bundy and Ryan with at least 30 plus starts available for others due to those 5 being ineffective or on the IL. Next year,  3 young guys, Pineda and Bundy. 2024 - all home grown.  

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    I am all about seeing what the young guns can do, but I am glass half empty on actually being competitive this year due to the uncertainty of the pitching staff. The pivot should be made to getting a legit shortstop and window actually opening the following year if our prospects work out. The window had better be wide open by 2025 or this FO may need a makeover.

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    The pitching prospects are the single biggest reason why I've been reluctant to simply write off this FO to this point.  They were tasked with rebuilding the entire organization from the top down, that doesn't happen overnight.  I have plenty of quarrels with how they've handled the big league club, particularly lately, but I've been under the assumption that they were simply setting themselves up for the point in time described in this article.  Now they've just got to be right.  

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    Quote

     

    Is this a "rebuild"?

    Falvey has bristled at the notion his team is headed for a rebuild in 2022. "I'm not using that word," he told reporters. Is he off base?

     

    I think he is correct, it isn't a rebuild or a retool. The offensive is mostly set with Vets with a young guy sprinkled around. and the pitching staff is hope and prayer that some of these prospects work out. Besides SWR and Balazovic, they are fairly old to be considered high end prospects so you can't really wait much longer to get them into the majors.


     

    Quote

     

    A prototype to follow

    Looking back through franchise history, we can find a pretty decent parallel for what a youthful takeover of the rotation could look like: the 2008 season.

    That season, too, had the makings of a rebuild on the surface. Minnesota traded Johan Santana for prospects during the previous offseason, while letting Torii Hunter walk. They didn't go out and make any big moves in free agency. 

    The rotation ended up being led by Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, and Glen Perkins. Of those four, only Baker had more than 100 innings of major-league experience coming into the campaign. All were between 24 and 26 years old.

    Ironically, the biggest misstep by the front office that year was signing Liván Hernández under the pretense that this young group of starters needed a veteran leader. Hernández posted a 5.48 ERA over 23 starts before being cut in August to make room for Francisco Liriano – another young starter who rounded out the youth-led rotation.

     

    Is that really a prototype to follow? Baker was the only pitcher that ended up with a career WAR of above 5 as a starting pitcher. The missed the playoffs with Mauer (5.6 WAR), Morneau (4.2), Span (4.2), Gomez (2.1), Punto (2.1), Casilla(1.6), Harris (1.2), and a cast of others with a Plus  WAR.

    Hernández was a misstep, but the biggest misstep was not mixing in some good vets to go with a good offense and young pitchers.  The gave Bonser 118.1 innings with a 5.93 ERA Guerrier 76.1 with a 5.19, Hernández 139.2 with a 5.48, Brian Bass 68.1 with a 4.87,  and Perkins (1.3 WAR) was just OK.

    To me this is an example of why they should bring in more than Bundy, kind of seems like history repeating it self.

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    by next fall you are going to have a 40 man roster crunch, and need to know which of these pitchers are ongoing.  Only way to tell for me is to give the major league innings and move them up and down if they struggle.  Some will have to go up and down more than once.  But trading the wrong ones will be fatal, unless the pitchers coming in are decent and will agree to extensions.  

    I don't pretend to have access to or know the FO's take on these pitchers , but so far Ryan and Ober seem to do better than the pitch to contact types we have had here.  If this doesn't work this FO will be gone, but let's give them a chance.  Cleveland has had great sucess with this model, as has Tampa Bay.  2022 may be more of 2021 while we figure it out, but I hope starting in 2023, we will have the pitching to contend for years.

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    Great well thought out article.  Let's see here.  Twins finished last in division after Baldelli said all the pieces were in place to win.  Twins finished last with a very incompetent pitching staff finished near the bottom in most pitching stats.  So far they have signed another reclamation project in Bundy.  He with a 2-9 record and an era of 6.06.  sounds just what we need.  Oh yes we extended Buxton who was on the roster already.  Hope he can pitch.  Seems to me this FO better hope the so-called pitching pipeline works out.  Rebuild or retool what's the difference with another 90-100 loss season ahead?

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    Nick, you are spot on: the Twins are not only going to see what they have this year among their burgeoning staff options, but also are not necessarily writing off the year. If our pen is strong, there is no reason we can’t compete.

    A couple of points:

    1. Of the 13 possibilities (I include Jax), there is a high likelihood that most, if not all of them, barring injury or unexpected poor development/performance, get a shot in the majors this year.

    2. The MO of this FO and coaching staff is all about 4-6 inning, two + times thru the order starters anyway. None of them need to be a shutdown, innings eater next year (or even further into the future for that matter, but it would be nice if one or two became that eventually). 

    3. The goal should be that by ‘23 we see hopefully at least 3-4 of them develop into legitimate #2-4 starters. The beauty of that is they would all be on LEAGUE MINIMUM!  Think about that for a second. We take 13 legitimate prospects and turn them into 4 legitimate starters under team control for multiple years at a total sum of under $10MM/year. That is an incredibly strong place to be as a mid market team.
     

    4. The FO then uses the cash saved to build a killer pen and, if desired, add a more true #1 and/or a key position player or two to fill a hole. Building a killer pen is cheaper, and way less risky, than signing multiple FA starters on longer term deals.

    I’ve written this before on the TD and I’ll write it again: I hope the Twins win as many games as possible in ‘22, but this organization (with the resigning of Buxton, the core young positional talent both up and on the way, this cadre of emerging starters/pitchers, and the low cost of the core coupled with an owner willing to spend when the window is open) has a unique chance next year to position the team for several successful, fun, exciting years. I’m more than willing to be patient in ‘22 with that ultimate goal in mind if need be.

     

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    Based on this "not a rebuilding" plan, which I just read about here, I just called a bookie in Las Vegas and told him the Twins were not rebuilding this year, they were going for the gold, and I bet $5,000 on the Twins to make the playoffs and $1,000 that the Twins would be in the World Series. Thanks Derek and Thad. 

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    Excellent article Nick, sure to bring lots of opinions.  I see your reasoning and I don't think you are actually advocating for this philosophy (maybe you are) but the reasoning and the way the Twins have worked in the past is consistent with this.

    However, I'm going to explain why I think this is a flawed plan.  Our biggest "issue" with Twins front offices in the past was that they NEVER took a risk and made a big move to put the ballclub over the top to actually have those Twins teams of 2004-2009 DO something.  They were GOOD teams, with 2 MVP's (Mauer & Morneau) and a Stud CY Young winner heading the staff in Santana.  But they always needed just a little more "juice" and the FO never supplied it.  The 2009 signing of Hernandez is very comparable to a Happ, Shoemaker, Bundy type of signing.  The difference is that Liriano, who had a spectacular debut in 2006 (2.16 ERA) had been battling injuries and ineffectiveness before he reestablished himself in the 2009 rotation. In retrospect, a BETTER signing than a bargain basement Hernandez with Liriano eventually making it back could have made a big difference.   The foundation of the early-mid 2000's Twins was better, with Mauer & Morneau along with Hunter, Cuddyer and others.  But this iteration of the Twins in 2022, while having a decent lineup (albeit with a couple major holes at SS and LF) is woefully short on "proven" major league pitching.  The list of solid pitching prospects is long.  You list a dozen of them and Chase Petty isn't even one of them.  The current FO has done a nice job of assembling power arms.  But for this team to contend in 2022 and beyond, they need some guys who can pitch NOW and in the future.  We've seen the list of available pitchers who could have an immediate and future positive impact:  Montas, Bassitt, Manaea, Castillo, Gray, Mahle, Lopez, Sixto Sanchez, and there are even a couple of Brewers pitchers that could be added to this list.  

    The 12 young guns the Twins have that are close to the big leagues need to get some chances in 2022.  But some of those arms need to be leveraged to acquire actual big league SP's (in addition to an Arraez or other big league assets).  The Twins simply cannot go into 2022 with Bundy, Pineda and the "YOUTS."  (that was a "My Cousin Vinny" reference, not to be confused with "Y-Outs" ).  :)  

    I want to see SOME of those young guns debut in 2022.  But I also want to see some precise "evaluating" of what we have in the minors and some determinations regarding who is untouchable and who could/should be packaged for some proven, quality arms in a trade.  

     

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    As I had replied in Gleeman's article ... Twins are attempting to mimmick the Rays system for pitching.. have a stable ready to go ... and keep them coming. Once a pitcher gets to his max value trade to a big boy for their quality minor leaguers... rinse and repeat. 

    Has made the Rays parenial power with a low payroll... not an easy task and takes GREAT patience but over time is a great way for a smaller market team to compete with the big boys. 

    That being said I fully expect the Twins to make a trade for a quality pitcher from Oakland or Cincy. All depends on the return thos teams are looking for... 

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    This article isn't a huge surprise to me and likely isn't to many as it is pretty much what this FO has been dong since they got here.  I believe they have signed zero pitchers to anything over two years in FA and traded for one (Maeda) whose price tag was hard to beat and LA needed to move.  This is pretty much what they do every year.

    The one major difference this year is that they do have about a dozen interesting arms bubbling up and if healthy a solid half dozen that could be more than a number 5 starter.  So maybe just maybe this the year we see some pitching breakouts.  This team needs a lot of them to compete with the big teams.

    I have to say my optimism for young pitching was sapped some last year with all the injuries in the minors.  Arms are just so hard to develop and hold onto for very long. I hope this a breakout year but if it isn't we might be back to square one.

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    I hate to say it, but as soon as we flunked the high end market I moved on to the strategy you outlined.  I would have loved to have Berrios lead this young group forward, but we flunked our own FA market so that can't happen.  Maeda would have been nice, but his injury makes him a 2023 arm.  I am tired of the Bundy/Happ/Shoemaker rehab signings.  And now the question of trades brings up the reality that some of these young arms might be in someone else's rotation.  So barring a trade I like the idea of a six man rotation and we start doing auditions.  Perhaps the sixth man is a hybrid RP/SP, but right now I want to see if the future is here and I also recognize that Ober and Ryan will be watched for their innings so having lots of SP could reduce that.  Last thought - even if we bring in one really good pitcher, will it matter if no one steps up from this young herd of prospects?

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    Prospects are judged on their perceived talent ceilings until they prove differently. Cory Kluber is an example of a pitcher who rose above early predictions. Most of the top pitchers were given decent reviews as prospects. There can be additions to the dozen Twins noted, Jax and Raya to name two. The Twins do not have any prospects currently rated to predict above mid rotation starters. I believe a couple will rise above their write-ups. This becomes another reason to add experienced good pitchers and the sheer number of prospects should tell us that it is ok to trade few arms.

    One of the issues that returns again and again is the perception of the Twins as a small market team that must work with a smaller budget. Are we all adjusting how a team is collected based on an accepted notion? Was Twins Daily number of a $130 budget million excessive? A base of $90 million, as many seem to suggest, may be necessary. This moves the discussion quite a bit from a month past. A lower figure requires more use of prospects. We are agreeing that the prospects need mound time. We wonder if the new reality means an only prospects staff. The goalposts are being moved.

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    At least there will be a larger screen for the fewer and fewer fans that show up..  The scoreboard is part of the second phase of a two-part, $29.5 million project, the cost of which is split evenly between the Minnesota Twins and the Minnesota Ballpark Authority (MBA), the government agency that oversees the publicly owned building.

     

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    45 minutes ago, specialiststeve said:

    As I had replied in Gleeman's article ... Twins are attempting to mimmick the Rays system for pitching.. have a stable ready to go ... and keep them coming.

     

    Can you help me again with that names that have been in the Tampa stable?

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    10 hours ago, Unwinder said:

    I don't know if this year can realistically not be a rebuild year, but I am excited about a lot of those names coming up, particularly Winder, who I think is ready to contribute. I do hope I get to personally have a look at Balazovic in St Paul before he makes an appearance with the Twins. 

    I think you’ll get that look at Balazovic. He looked at times like he was ready with that big breaking ball but was disappointingly erratic. The clips I’ve seen of him pitching well look like a guy who’s ready but his overall performance in AA contradicts that. 

    That said, I’m still hopeful he’s a high upside guy.

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    Very nicely written and thought out. I think the availability of Miami young pitchers poses too much risk because of a history of injuries acept Alcantara & Rogers. Why is $10m salary the going thing for a weak FA pitcher and in the trading market $10m is so much? The trading market player has equal or better to peripherals health, age, live game stats. When did a 1 year FA contract become better than a 1 year  trade contract?  The time line of the Twins with the potential in the farm system allows me to think that trading for Bassitt, Montas,  Manaea from the “A” or S. Gray from the Reds fit well and much more reasonably priced.  According to “MLB Trade Values”. Arraez & Larnach may be “over pay” but could work as trade for Babbitt RSP and Manaea lsp and a relief pitcher. I may even consider a salary dump of Sano’ for Andrés ss this trade would save Twins $2m and attempt to short term ss.

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    25 minutes ago, Sconnie said:

    Last year was an absolute disaster. If the OP was the plan all along, why didn’t more of these guys get a taste of the bigs? At least some long relief… instead we watched Albers et al get hammered

    Valid question, for sure.  I'm willing to accept reluctance early in the season given the lack of prior season, but that doesn't apply to the later part of the season.  Several were injured and I'm sure that trying to limit innings coming off the loss of the prior season also plays into it.  I don't think that answers the question entirely though.  

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    29 minutes ago, Sconnie said:

    Last year was an absolute disaster. If the OP was the plan all along, why didn’t more of these guys get a taste of the bigs? At least some long relief… instead we watched Albers et al get hammered

    They were basically all injured, and/or trying to build their stamina back up after the lost season. That's kind of the underlying point in this post ... the lost season in 2020 was hugely disruptive to prospect development so last year was basically spent getting everyone back on track. That's why the coming season feels pivotal. Now it's go time.

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    2 hours ago, TwinsDr2021 said:

    Is that really a prototype to follow? Baker was the only pitcher that ended up with a career WAR of above 5 as a starting pitcher. The missed the playoffs with Mauer (5.6 WAR), Morneau (4.2), Span (4.2), Gomez (2.1), Punto (2.1), Casilla(1.6), Harris (1.2), and a cast of others with a Plus  WAR.

    Hernández was a misstep, but the biggest misstep was not mixing in some good vets to go with a good offense and young pitchers.  The gave Bonser 118.1 innings with a 5.93 ERA Guerrier 76.1 with a 5.19, Hernández 139.2 with a 5.48, Brian Bass 68.1 with a 4.87,  and Perkins (1.3 WAR) was just OK.

    To me this is an example of why they should bring in more than Bundy, kind of seems like history repeating it self.

    Fair points. I didn't really mean to frame it as a 1:1 comparison, more so just an example of a Twins team that's been able to overcome low expectations and compete with a young rotation. But your final statement is hard to deny. If some of these young pitchers catch on and the team contends, we may look back and wish the front office did more. (That said, I still fully expect multiple significant pitching additions before the season.)

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    Nice article. Yes, the Twins' strategy appears to be build pitching from within. I am good with that (as if it matters). But if the team is seeking to compete for a postseason spot as they should be given the run scoring potential of the line-up bringing in 1 competent to very good SP wouldn't derail the strategic approach and would increase the chances some of being a contender.

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    Thanks Nick for your observation of what the FO is doing. We shouldn't shoot the messenger of what he sees. I appreciate your insights of what you trying to make sense of what's going on. I like in theory in what they doing. I think it's great setting up a system of where our AAAA can be rotated in and out of the MLB mix, using them as openers and long relief. Giving a taste of MLB and sending them down to work on their discovered weakness and going with the hot hand. At the same time keeping the rotation and short relief rested.

    Flexibility is the key. Last season, it appeared to me that this FO had the mindset that we had a strong rotation, Cave would be our starting LF and Buxton sub, transformation of Dobnak as a SO pitcher and we had a terrific BP led by Colume'. From the very beginning these assessments proved wrong but FO persisted for months. I advocated last season from the beginning to have a strong long relief (that never happened), rotating AAAA arms because it helps develop young pitchers, supports a weak rotation and a BP when failing.

    This season's rotation so far consisting of Bundy, Ober and Ryan, are a very weak rotation. In the beginning I don't see any of them going 5 innings, I expect times where both Ober and Ryan will need time to be sent back down to AAA to figure things out. I'm a firm believer of this system of openers and long relief. That said, I still like to see 1 or 2 veteran, solid top of the rotation pitcher via trade.

    Many times after a down year we come back and excel. We have a great core players that can compete for MVP (Buxton, Polanco and Donaldson) with a few very good supporting players. We just need to fill our holes (SP, SS, CF sub and possible back end BP) that can be easily done via trades and some FAs. I hope management will learn from their mistakes and our players are able to figure things out. Our thinking can't be "rebuilding"  but how are we going to progress in the PS.

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    Great article, Nick, thanks.

    I understand the FO bristling at comments that they are entering a 'rebuild' period.  At least to me, rebuild would indicate a longer period of cutting back to young kids with an eye on competing three, four or five years down the road.  I understand and agree that isn't and shouldn't be the case for the Twins.  Yet, that doesn't mean that 2022 won't be an off year.

    But do they also have information leading them to believe that the 2022 season is going to either not exist or be significantly affected by the lockout/pending strike?  If so, it would be smart to focus on 2023 and beyond.

    If baseball does have a shutdown for part/all of 2022, the minor leagues will keep playing...right?  I am not certain, but would all the 40-man roster guys also be shut down?  But several of those prospects listed above aren't on the 40-man and would keep playing this summer.  That would put the Twins in much better shape to fill a significant part of their rotation with some of these young arms come 2023 with guys like Canterino, Varland and SWR having a full 2022 season behind them.

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