You have to be excited about the performance we received from him.
— Twins manager Paul Molitor after Jose Berrios’ 2017 debut on Saturday
Jose Berrios had nothing left to prove in Triple-A. He owns a 1.13 ERA in the minors this year and had a 14-strikeout game in Triple-A Rochester last season. His 8.02 ERA and 1.869 WHIP in 14 starts last season be damned, this man came out and dominated the Cleveland Indians, the World Series runner-up last year, in his 2017 debut. 7.2 innings. Two hits. One run allowed.
“It might smack of desperation to get worked up over one good start from a pitcher with an 8.02 career ERA entering the season,” wrote The Ringer’s Michael Baumann after the start, “but armed with command and a defense that suits him, Berrios could make everyone forget his disastrous 2016.”
Baumann touched on how catcher Jason Castro, the Twins big free agent pickup in the offseason, can help with pitch framing. He noted that Berrios is a fly ball pitcher who will be greatly helped by Byron Buxton’s superhuman speed. And he also acknowledged the similarities between Berrios and Vance Worley. (Don’t freak: “First, Worley, who posted an ERA of 7.21 in 10 starts with the Twins, pitched through shoulder inflammation in 2013,” he wrote. “Second, Berrios’s stuff is way better than Worley’s.”)
The focus should not be on Berrios specifically, but on the Twins’ young pitchers in general
The story itself is worth a read, but the bottom line is that he’s telling Twins fans that it’s okay to lose it over Berrios’ strong outing. It’s also smart to heed our Brandon Warne’s advice and keep expectations for Berrios in check. Get excited about Berrios’ future with the team, but realize that at 23 — or at 32, for that matter — he’s going to have his ups and downs. Anyone reading this is capable of holding those two thoughts in their mind at once. He’s good, but he’s also human.
In reality, the focus should not be on Berrios specifically, but on the Twins’ young pitchers in general — both the potential starters and the guys in the bullpen. Minnesota needs help in both categories if it is going to capitalize on a strong start, and a relatively weak division, this season.
Outside of Kyle Gibson, who is 29 and could bounce back after a minor league stint, help is going to come in the form of minor league prospects. Gibson is too old to be considered a prospect anymore, but he’s also too young to be considered washed up. A realistic expectation for him is to be a third starter at best that can be relied upon for six innings every time he’s out there. He also may be in need of a change of scenery, meaning Minnesota will essentially have to trade low on him.
Among starters that could make an impact, Adalberto Mejia, Stephen Gonsalves and Fernando Romero are three names to track in the minors.
Mejia got sent down after three starts this year due to his 5.79 ERA in only 9.1 innings of work, but was rated as the No. 6 Twins prospect by Baseball America and No. 8 by Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com. He arrived in Minnesota via the trade that sent Eduardo Nunez to the San Francisco Giants last season.
His first start Rochester was not promising, but at 23 he’s still got time to prove himself.
Gonsalves (No. 2 BA/MLB.com, No. 5 BP) and Romero (No. 3 BP, No. 4 BA/MLB.com) are both 22 and have not reached the majors yet. Gonsalves is currently on the 7-day disabled list, and Romero has made six starts in Double-A, so neither can provide immediate help, but both are projected to have higher ceilings than Mejia.
If the Twins can operate with a starting rotation of Ervin Santana, Hector Santiago, Phil Hughes and Berrios right now, they only have one spot to fill. Adam Wilk, who has four major league starts and owns a 7.02 ERA, was picked up from the New York Mets on May 10 and is currently occupying the fifth starter spot. Best-case scenario in the immediate future is that Mejia and Gibson get things straightened out in Triple-A and vie for the fifth starter role while providing injury insurance in case a member of the current rotation goes down. Then Gonsalves and/or Romero push for a major league spot later on in the season in case one of the incumbent starters either gets hurt or flops.
The bullpen situation is a bit of a different situation. Relievers, in general, are more volatile year to year — or appearance to appearance at times — and help can come via a converted starter a la Tyler Duffey or potentially Gibson if he cannot get things figured out as a starter in Rochester. But assuming Gibson or another starter is not converted, here are three names in the minors to keep an eye on: Tyler Jay (No. 2 BP, No. 5 BA/MLB.com), J.T. Chargois (No. 11 MLB.com) and Nick Burdi (No. 16 MLB.com).
Jay was a left-handed reliever at the University of Illinois who the Twins drafted No. 6 overall in the 2015 draft with the intention of turning him into a starter. He’s back in the bullpen in this season, and currently on the 7-day DL, but at 23 should be close to major league ready. During the recent Boston series, it was pointed out by many fans on Twitter that the Red Sox’s top prospect, Andrew Benintendi, was drafted immediately after him.
While comparing prospects can be apples and oranges, especially pitchers and position players (Benintendi is an outfielder), both are college players that should be making an impact in the majors during their early 20s if they’re drafted that high.
Chargois, 26, was drafted No. 72 overall in 2012 and was called up last season. He owns a 4.70 ERA in 23 innings pitched, but can touch 100 mph with his fastball and a plus-slider. “Chargois’ time in the big leagues in 2016 helped him learn that he needs to throw all of his pitches to find consistent success at that level,” reads his scouting report on MLB.com. “He has the stuff to close without question, so it will just come down to whether he has the mentality for it.” He too is on the 7-day DL, however.
And Burdi’s case is much like Jay’s: He was drafted No. 46 overall out of Louisville and projected to make the major league roster shortly after the draft. He has been held back due to injury, however, and is currently in Double-A, where he has thrown 13.2 innings and owns an 0.66 ERA. Like Chargois, he has an upper-90s fastball and a nasty slider.
If Jay, Charogis and Burdi can get (or stay) healthy and continue to dominate in the minors, they provide the most upside of every Twins reliever except maybe Ryan Pressly. Their collective velocity would be a jolt to the major league bullpen, and their age indicates that they could become staples on the team for years to come.
Without help from the minors, the Twins pitching will hold them back this year. The impact of a few pitchers in their early 20s could be the difference between a playoff run or another trod to the finish line at the end of the season this year.