A spirited battle for the No. 5 starter’s spot on the Minnesota Twins has turned into a bit of a war of attrition. Trevor May, who appeared to be the best in-house option, suffered a UCL injury and will miss the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on Wednesday. Ryan Vogelsong, who has two rings with the Giants but is going on 40 and hasn’t been effective in a handful of years, asked for and was granted his release on Tuesday after discussing his future with team officials.
As a result, it looks as though the Twins are ready to hand the keys to the kids — or at least to one of them. Guys like Rule 5 pickup Justin Haley and former Texas Rangers starter Nick Tepesch appear to be on the outside looking in, while the team looks to go in the direction of youth and upside with one of three youngsters: Tyler Duffey, Adalberto Mejia or Jose Berrios.
Each brings considerable upside and each has some sort of reason which may hinder their chances of being selected. So today, let’s break down each of them individually, and see what they bring to the table.
Duffey has — by far — the most big league success, and heading into his age-26 season is basically a finished product. His rookie season was a strong one, as he posted a 3.10 ERA in 10 starts with good peripherals and showed he was able to bounce back after a really tough first start at Rogers Centre in Toronto. He’ll need to be a bit more resilient to bounce back after a rough entire season in 2016, as he posted a staggering 6.43 ERA while allowing 25 home runs in just 133 innings.
Duffey’s secondary numbers foretell a guy who wasn’t quite as bad as the ERA might indicate — 4.73 FIP, 7.7 K/9, 2.2 BB/9 — but he still allowed opposing batters to hit an incredible .301/.345/.531 against him. The biggest culprit most point to is his inability to craft a third pitch, and it certainly hasn’t helped him. In 2016, Duffey threw a fastball or a curveball just over 93 percent of the time. What isn’t clear is where he stands with the changeup. He spent the entire spring last year working on it, only to get beat up a bit in Grapefruit League action and punch his ticket back to Rochester. Things didn’t really get much better when he was called back up; he made at least four starts in every month after April, and the best ERA he posted in any of them was in May with a ghastly 5.52 mark.
That doesn’t mean Duffey is completely without hope. The Twins have had young pitchers get beat up and come around to be solid pitchers afterward. Scott Baker is one who comes to mind. Baker had a 3.35 ERA in 10 MLB appearances in his rookie season, then was obliterated for a 6.37 ERA the next season. He still recovered to post a respectable 3.98 ERA with good peripherals over his final five years in a Twins uniform. In a lot of ways, Baker is a good comp for Duffey, who doesn’t have overpowering stuff but still manages to get by with more strikeouts than one might expect with a low-90s fastball. In essence, Duffey is sort of like Baker, plus grounders. That, in theory, should be a good thing.
But if Duffey can’t make things work as a starter, there’s a good chance he can be a difference-making reliever. He did so while at Rice, and a two-pitch mix as a reliever is no big deal. With a possible spike to his fastball velocity and a knucklecurve that gets swings and misses, Duffey’s fallback as a middle reliever with potential to ascend to the late innings is still a scenario which would interest the Twins.
The question is, do they want to give him one last spin in the rotation?
The only real knocks on Mejia are body type — he’s a little on the portly side — and that he’s only thrown 72 innings at Triple-A. Those innings have been mostly good — 4.00 ERA, 8.8 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 1.26 WHIP — but it might also mean that the team could want him to get just a little more seasoning. With that said, most prospect outlets see Mejia as a fairly safe back-end starter projection-wise, with an MLB-ready body — frame-wise — and a repertoire that has basically peaked with a low-90s fastball and four pitches overall that got at least 50 grades from Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen. Add to that his ability to command them all — and thus throw them in any count — and that he comes from the left side, and it’s basically an out-of-the-box starter kit for a fifth starter. The hurdle to leap to be considered an effective No. 5 starter is pretty low, but there’s significant reason to believe Mejia could do it. ZiPS projections have him posting a 4.88 ERA and Steamer is a bit more optimistic at 4.54; frankly, either one would do in this case.
Mejia certainly hasn’t hurt his case this spring, either; he’s posted a 1.88 ERA in 14.1 innings with 14 strikeouts, four walks and a .222 batting average against. The Twins are going to want one last righty for the bullpen, and it may come down to Duffey, Michael Tonkin and J.T. Chargois. If the Twins choose Duffey, Mejia would seem to have a good shot at cracking the rotation.
Berrios threw just four innings with the Twins in Spring Training before joining the Puerto Rico team for the World Baseball Classic. He’s also only thrown five frames with Puerto Rico, though he’s likely an option to pitch behind Seth Lugo when they take on the United States in the championship on Wednesday. As Mike Berardino noted in his column for the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Wednesday morning, the Twins aren’t totally sure what a championship would mean in terms of implications of getting their players back in a timely fashion. That is, if they win, would they be expected to travel back to Puerto Rico for some sort of celebration with their teammates and their country? That might not be much of an issue for Eddie Rosario and Hector Santiago — both of whom are more or less locked into their Opening Day roles — but for Kennys Vargas and of course Berrios, there’s much more at stake.
All of that is basically a long-winded way of saying it probably doesn’t help Berrios’ chances to break camp with the Twins. Not only does nine innings of work not really give the team enough to evaluate him fairly against his peers, but it also makes it unlikely he’ll be stretched out enough to give the Twins six or so innings each time out whenever the No. 5 starter’s number is first called. The Twins have traditionally not skipped the fifth starter early in the season in recent years — for instance, Tommy Milone made four starts last April — but it remains an option for teams with built-in off days early in the season.
Berrios is by far the team’s most dynamic candidate for the position. Nobody in the organization possesses his combination of near-MLB readiness with high-end stuff and potential. In his tough time with the Twins last year, his fastball averaged 93.3 mph and he carried respectable whiff rates on each of his pitches. The trouble was that Berrios didn’t throw enough strikes early in counts. He started plate appearances with strikes just 55.2 percent of the time last year — 5.3% behind the AL average — and as a result worked from behind the count all too frequently.
To illustrate this point simply, here’s how Berrios fared in certain situations (with AL average marks in parentheses):
- Pitcher ahead – .683 OPS against (.532)
- Count even – .741 OPS against (.723)
- Hitter ahead – 1.242 OPS against (.992)
Also, take a look at how Berrios’ pitch locations when he worked from behind:
As you can see, working from ahead is imperative for any pitcher and Berrios was no exception. However, he took it to another level — especially when behind in the count. He not only filled up the zone against righties when behind in the count, but nibbled away with too many pitches in the middle against lefties. Having a catcher like Jason Castro behind the plate who can help him work the corners a bit more will certainly help. If he can fill up the zone when behind in the count, it would seem to stand to reason that he should be able to do it to start counts, too. Maybe that’s a mental thing for a young pitcher who doesn’t want to get his brains beat in, especially after how the early portion of his career has gone.
Again, Berrios is clearly the most talented pitcher with the highest ceiling in the running — and maybe in the entire organization — but he’s probably an also-ran in this conversation….at least for now.