If there is any silver lining to being sellers at the trade deadline, it’s that the Minnesota Twins have had additional time to hold auditions for key roles on next year’s cast list. And while they are currently filling in as understudies in the rotation, the likes of Griffin Jax, Charlie Barnes, and Bailey Ober are taking advantage of the opportunity.
In fact, their contributions are a major factor in the team’s recent success since the calendar flipped to August.
Not only has their performance been commendable, but it’s come against some seriously heavy competition. They faced three first-place teams in the Houston Astros, Chicago White Sox, and Tampa Bay Rays, and they soaked up the spotlight with aplomb.
But in reality, they aren’t just competing against contending ball clubs. They’re competing against each other.
While it looks like each will have plenty of opportunities to take center stage in the remainder of this season, there are only so many spotlights available in the 2022 rotation.
Here’s what each hurler has brought to their auditions so far.
First to take the stage in front of the casting director, er, manager is right-hander Griffin Jax. While his 5.11 ERA in the big leagues leaves much to be desired, he has been absolutely nailing his solos since mid-July. Since his start against the White Sox on July 19th, Jax has a 2.73 ERA and has been steadily working later into games. The highlight of course came against Chicago on Aug. 10th, when the Air Force Academy grad punched out 10 in six innings of work.
What’s been working for Jax in August? His ability to put a nail in the coffin when an at-bat gets to two strikes.
In those situations, opponents have a microscopic .105 OPS against him, best in MLB. They’re not getting on base, and they’re doing minimal damage when they do.
I’m sure Jax and the Twins will say that’s by design, but there may be some highly favorable luck involved as well. In that same time span, his .183 BABIP (Batting Average of Balls In Play) and 4.97 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) suggest his end results should be much worse.
The reality of what we can expect from him could be closer to the outcomes when he fails to get ahead of a batter. In his last three starts when falling behind in the count, Jax has allowed an OPS of 1.743, fourth-highest in MLB in that span.
His solid minor league numbers and prospect pedigree work in his favor, but if he wants to win a spot in the big-league rotation in 2022, he’s going to have to keep nailing those solos by getting to two strikes.
Barnes, the youngest of this trio at 25, has the least amount of MLB exposure thus far in the season, but he has started four games since getting promoted on July 17th. The small sample size of his work makes him a relatively unknown player in these auditions, but there is still some substance to his stats.
His surface-level numbers are underwhelming, with a 4.91 ERA and just a 4.42 K/9, but much of the damage against him came in just one appearance against the Cincinnati Reds on Aug. 4th. Barnes gave up five earned runs in just four innings of work while striking out just two batters in that game. Take that appearance off of his bottom line and he’s been solid.
Without that game, he has a 3.19 ERA in three starts.
He may not have the gusto to carry the show, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a useful piece — Barnes profiles as a contending team’s fill-in when one of the headlining star pitchers goes down. Somebody who can get through the batting order twice, but anything more would be an overreach.
He relies on his off-speed pitches as a way to keep hitters off balance, but that can only go so far without another pitch to finish the job. Instead, he has a fastball that barely breaks 90 MPH, an average slider with small sweeping action, and a “show me” curveball that he only throws about 4% of the time.
That repertoire doesn’t scream staff ace, but he could still play a contributing role in 2022 similar to his current position on the depth chart. Maybe he starts the season in St. Paul, but he’ll do his best to memorize his lines in case one of the stars goes down before showtime.
Tuesday night’s starter may have the clearest path to a rotation role going forward. Ober has been making starts for the big-league club consistently since his debut in mid-May, with solid results and considerable improvement over the past month.
On the year, the towering righty has a 4.38 ERA and far stronger strikeout numbers than the other two (9.19 K/9). His pitch repertoire isn’t anything special, featuring a fastball, small slider, straight 12-6 curveball, and a below-average changeup. His most effective pitch has been the heater, due in large part to some deception in his release thanks to his 6’9’’ stature. While it tops out in the low- to mid-90s, the fact that it is released a few inches closer to home plays in his favor. Call it the Randy Johnson effect.
Reports out of the minor leagues in years past suggested his velocity maxed out at 90-91 MPH. If he can continue to add a few ticks as he develops he could really have a chance to stick around.
While his slider has been hit around at the big-league level, he and Twins’ pitching coach Wes Johnson have been working on some adjustments that might help. Two starts ago, Ober had a noticeable uptick in velocity on his slider and he started throwing it just a little bit higher to try and match the initial pitch path of his fastball before breaking. That tunneling of the two pitches paid dividends against the White Sox, as he held arguably the league’s best lineup to just six hits and one walk with six punchouts in 5⅓ innings of work.
That could be the most encouraging aspect to his audition. His ability to make adjustments is a quality that not every major leaguer possesses, and its absence can be devastating. Matt Shoemaker, whom Ober replaced in the rotation earlier this year, showed that a lack of effective adjustment can crater a player’s campaign. He notably didn’t trust the script that Johnson and the Twins’ player development department wrote out for him, instead relying on his ability to improvise. That didn’t work, and the veteran was cut from the cast list.
No doubt, fans should hope for the Twins’ brass to approach this upcoming offseason much differently than last year’s. Hopefully they can find a few notable, high-ceiling additions to the rotation instead of scrap-heap projects such as Shoemaker and J.A. Happ where they would have to rely on teaching old dogs new tricks. In the meantime, the trio of Jax, Barnes, and Ober are giving their all.
Maybe they end up in the ensemble when all is said and done. Maybe they are stashed away in St. Paul as understudies yet again. But for now, they get the spotlight once or twice a week, and hopefully they can keep belting out their lines until the curtain closes on this production.