Looking Ahead to 2019: Starting Pitchers

Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

There was a lot of positivity surrounding this team entering the 2018 season and there are reasons to be excited for the 2019 version of the Minnesota Twins.

Here’s a look at the in-house names one can expect to see in the starting rotation when the Twins open the season against the back-to-back-to-back American League Central champion Cleveland Indians next spring.

The Locks

Jose Berrios

In his first full season at the major-league level, Berrios became the first Twins pitcher to have 200 strikeouts in a season since Francisco Liriano in 2010.

After years of being touted as a top Twins pitching prospect, he finally will be touted as the Twins “ace” heading into 2019. Comparing his 2017 statistics with his 2018 metrics shows that he improved across the board and — at only 24 years old — can be expected to continue to show more growth moving forward.

At the top of the priority list would be to lessen the number of walks as he ranked 41st out of 71 pitchers who pitched 150-plus innings in BB/9.

Kyle Gibson

With Gibson coming off his best big league season, the Twins can comfortably slot him in as the No. 2 guy in 2019. In 2018 he struck out nearly two more batters per nine innings than he had in his career, but that was also coupled with a slight increase in walks per nine innings.

Gibson lives and dies by his sinker and in 2018 he was able to throw it for a strike more often than he had in the first six years of his career — 22 percent versus 23.9 percent.

Furthermore, the zone charts below show that he was able to induce significantly more ground balls with his sinker in 2018 than he had from 2012-17.

He is coming off the most consistent season-and-a-half of his career and will look to build off that in 2019, which is his final season before he enters free agency in the 2019-20 offseason.

Jake Odorizzi

Although Twins fans were underwhelmed by Odorizzi for most of the 2018 campaign he actually churned out the second best season of his five-year career, according to Fangraphs WAR.

In 2018, he was the only regular starter for the Twins whose FIP was better than his ERA, which indicates that the defense behind him hurt his numbers a little more than they helped.

Over the last two years, Odorizzi has had troubles keeping pitches in the strike zone as his BB/9 has sat at 3.8 both years while it was at 2.7 in the three previous years. For reference, a 2.7 BB/9 is considered slightly above “average” according to FanGraphs while 3.8 is between “poor” and “awful.” A quick look at his pitch outcomes on Brooks Baseball shows that his two highest used pitches – four-seam and split-finger – have seen considerable declines in strike percentage over the last two years as seen below.

Like Gibson, he will be entering free agency in the 2019-20 offseason and will need to improve his control on these pitches in 2019 to get a big payday.

The battle for the 4th and 5th spot

Michael Pineda

Pineda will be a bit of a wild card as he will returning from Tommy John and knee surgery and hasn’t pitched since May 7, 2015 with the New York Yankees.

His profile is as someone who can strike batters out while limiting walks by relying on the sweeping movement of his cutter and slider to get batters out.

He has pitched a bit in the minors this year, but not enough to make any meaningful conclusions. The new regime brought him in on a two-year deal knowing this year would be a loss, so I think he’s a pretty safe bet to start the season in the rotation next year.

Fernando Romero

It was reported that the only reason Romero didn’t get the call up once the rosters expanded on Sept. 1 was due to an innings limit. Regardless, his 11 starts this year were better than what the Twins saw from both Kohl Stewart and Stephen Gonsalves which makes him my early favorite for the fifth spot in the rotation.

In fact, his 0.7 WAR was 5th best for all Twins pitchers who have made a start this year according to Fangraphs. He’s more of a power pitcher who throws his fastball at an average speed of 95 miles per hour and is able to control the strike zone pretty well.

Kohl Stewart

Stewart was the fourth overall pick back in 2013 and although he hasn’t lived up to his draft slot, keep in mind that he will only be 24 years old at the start of next season.

In his first cup of coffee in the big leagues, Stewart fared pretty well with the exception of his Aug. 18 game against the Tigers and Sept. 11 game against the Yankees where he walked a combined nine batters; he walked only nine batters in all his other appearances combined.

His last two appearances looked especially promising as he only allowed eight baserunners and stranded 87.5 percent of the runners on base. He relies heavily on his sinker — as he throws it almost half the time — but is only throwing it for a strike 20.6 percent of the time. He will need to improve on this number if he is going to be given a shot at the start of the 2019 season.

The Longshots

This is a list of the players that will more than likely make spot starts in 2019, but could theoretically battle for a back-end rotation spot at the start of the season.

Adalberto Mejia

He spent most of this season at Triple-A Rochester with marginal success boasting, a 3.01 FIP and  8.81 K/9, but also walked 2.9 batters per nine innings. He did make four starts for the Twins the year, but don’t be fooled by his sparkly 2.01 ERA.

The metrics tell us that he was extremely lucky with a BABIP of .239 and a FIP of 4.06. Also, his career K/9 and BB/9 are each sitting at 4.19 which would be considered “awful” by Fangraphs standards.

His out pitch against lefties is a low and away slider where he has had decent success with a 32.5 percent strike rate, but against righties his out pitch is a flat, 93 mph fastball that has a measly whiff rate of 6.97 percent.

If he is going to become a consistent big league pitcher, then he will need to work on missing more bats and walking fewer hitters.

He still has four years of team control, so it wouldn’t be surprising if he fits a similar role in 2019. That is, mostly a Triple-A pitcher but will make a few spot starts.

Stephen Gonsalves

Gonsalves was a Twins fourth-round pick in the same draft that they snagged Stewart and really struggled with his control in his first taste of the big leagues.

This was something that looked like he had figured out in 2017 but has struggled with again in 2018 at each level he has pitched. His average fastball velocity sits around 90 miles per hour, which means that he is really going to need to figure out how to throw strikes if he is going to have a successful big-league career.

In his young career, he has faced a heavy dose of righties — he’s only thrown 24 pitches to left-handed hitters — and they have a .772 OPS against him while hitting line drives 33.8 percent of the time.

That’s one of the highest rates in the league of pitchers who have pitched at least 20 innings.

The reason righties have had so much success off him is that he has left his fastball in the middle and outer parts of the zone which allows hitters to extend their arms and get a good, powerful swing on the ball, which can be seen in the zone chart below.

At this point, Gonsalves seems like a long shot to crack the rotation at the start of the 2019.

Ervin Santana

The 2019 season is a team-option for Santana where he would earn $14 million. It would be surprising if the Twins didn’t exercise a $1 million buyout.

The others

The following players are worth mentioning but had such a small body of work in 2019 that their sample is too small to glean anything super meaningful from.

Chase De Jong

He was never really a highly-touted prospect in the Mariners organization and 2019 will be his 25-year-old season with five years of team control and arbitration remaining. He’s only made eight big-league starts and was a September call-up for the Twins in 2018.

With a fastball that barely cracks 90 miles per hour, his early numbers show that he will need to work on his control to become a successful major league pitcher.

Aaron Slegers

Slegers is already 26 with a little minor league and major league success. He is still under team control for the next five years, so he’s not going away, but there’s no compelling reason to expect him to even compete for a spot in spring training.

Zack Littell

He is only 23 and didn’t look great in 20.1 big-league innings, so expect him to spend most of next season at Rochester. We could possibly see him make a couple spot starts during the season while being a September call-up like he was this year.

Lewis Thorpe

Thorpe entered the 2018 season as the Twins 10th ranked prospect and had a decent year with 25 starts between Rochester and Double-A Chattanooga. He could look at a September call-up next season with another solid year in the minors. It’s possible 2020 or even 2021 might be his first shot for a regular spot within the rotation.

As I said from the start, this is a list of the in-house options for next year. Falvey and Levine showed last year that they will be aggressive in free agency, so I wouldn’t totally write off the possibility they could add a starter that way.

With that said, I think there are bigger fish to fry in free agency this year. More on that to come…

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