When the Minnesota Twins announced the signing of Nelson Cruz, Derek Falvey also declared that the Twins were done adding “big-ticket” contracts. The comment surely drew chuckles from a section of the fan base that doesn’t see J.A. Happ and Andrelton Simmons as major additions, but it was especially questionable considering the state of the starting rotation.
As of now, the Twins are planning on entering spring training with the quartet of Jose Berrios, Michael Pineda, Kenta Maeda, and Happ in the starting rotation. The fifth starter spot feels like a battle royale that will come down to Randy Dobnak, Devin Smeltzer, Lewis Thorpe, and the newly signed Matt Shoemaker.
This battle will certainly add some intrigue to a roster that’s seemingly locked in heading to spring training. But what’s more intriguing is why they wouldn’t sign Odorizzi to take that spot.
Odorizzi has been an inconsistent starter with the Twins. When he arrived in 2018, he looked like another average pitcher, going 7-10 with a 4.49 ERA. But the Twins’ new brain trust led by pitching coach Wes Johnson arrived the following season, and Odorizzi made his first All-Star appearance, going 15-7 with a 3.51 ERA.
His hot start cooled off as the season went on, but he was Minnesota’s best starter against the New York Yankees in the 2019 ALDS. The Twins took the customary step of making a qualifying offer and Odorizzi accepted the one-year, $17.8 million salary instead of testing the waters for a long-term deal. While he didn’t return that value in an injury-riddled 2020, he’s probably a better option than any the Twins have now.
Their top option right now is Dobnak, who developed a cult following going from five-star Uber driver to playoff starter in the course of the 2019 season. While his 2020 started well, going 5-1 with a 1.78 ERA, he quickly crashed back to earth as he couldn’t find the strike zone.
While his 43.4 zone percentage wasn’t too far off the league average of 45%, hitters didn’t chase (31.4%) as frequently as he did in 2019 (37.6%), and Dobnak found himself catching an Uber to CHS Field for minor league camp.
There is a chance that Dobnak’s struggles were the typical career arc of a pitcher entering his age-26 season, but it’s not certain he’ll bounce back. In 2019 and the early portion of 2020, Dobnak feasted off of struggling lineups which may not be the case as teams see him multiple times. While there’s a chance Dobnak could rebound, there is a good chance he’s the same pitcher we saw last season.
What about Devin Smeltzer? Twins fans would love to see him take the job considering his backstory as a childhood cancer survivor who met Chase Utley as part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation and then became his spring training teammate, but he also has the largest major league sample out of the incumbents in the race.
What we know about Smeltzer is that he possesses one of the best spin rates in terms of his fastball (76th percentile) and curveball (74th percentile) among qualifying MLB starters. The problem is that batters were no longer chasing his secondary pitches.
Smeltzer saw a steep drop in opposing chase rate last season, going from 31.4% in 2019 to 21.7% last season. For a pitcher who owns an 87.5 mph fastball, qualifying as the fourth percentile of all starters, getting hitters to chase what’s not in the zone figures to be a big part of his game. With hitters laying off, his walk rate also jumped to 2.8 batters per nine innings — too high to be a regular starter.
If the experienced starters aren’t what the Twins are looking for, they can hope that Thorpe, 25, can return to his 2019 form. While he struggled in his brief stint with the Twins that season, he logged a 10.1 K/9 rate, which is something they hoped they could build upon.
Instead, Thorpe never found a rhythm in his age-24 season. He left camp before the pandemic hit last spring and when he returned, he posted miserable numbers across the board, including a strikeout rate that went from 25% in 2019 to 13% in 2020.
His velocity dropped to 89.7 mph last year, and the Twins would look wise using a rare fourth-minor league option to try to straighten him out before sticking him on the major league roster.
All of these rebound scenarios led their way to Shoemaker, who is no certainty himself. After being hit in the head with a line drive during the 2016 season, Shoemaker has made just 32 starts over the past five seasons. While his numbers are good, he’s also suffered several soft tissue and shoulder injuries that have kept him off the mound.
This is a lesson the Twins should have learned with the Rich Hill experiment. While the numbers look great when making the signing, availability is the best ability — even if it comes at a bargain price.
All of this talk has been centered around the fifth spot in the rotation, but the better case for bringing Odorizzi back may reside with the guys who are already in the rotation.
Berrios has shown ace potential over the past four years, but the last time we saw him he got one swinging strike on 75 pitches on a postseason start against the Houston Astros.
Maeda finished second in the American League Cy Young voting, but that was over only 66.2 innings. Throughout his career, Maeda’s performance has tended to decline over the summer months, leading the Los Angeles Dodgers to use him in a bullpen role.
Pineda was recently suspended for using a diuretic and Happ is two years removed from flirting with a 5.00 ERA.
Odorizzi isn’t a slam dunk candidate to turn the Twins into a shut-down rotation, but adding him to the rotation would at least give the Twins some peace of mind. Unless Odorizzi is asking for the $17.8 million he received in 2020 or a five-year deal, the Twins should make the phone call to see if they can work something out. Otherwise, it will be another year of uncertainty for the Twins’ starting rotation.