The Minnesota Twins find themselves toeing a thin line as the league continues to stall in a lockout-induced dead zone.
Their intention to remain in a competitive window and a retooling of their assets feel like two ends of a strategic spectrum, and it’s hard to say which direction the pendulum will ultimately swing. With more than a dozen long-term contracts already being agreed to on this year’s free-agent market, the local club came away with a single $5 million make-good pact with starter Dylan Bundy.
Was this a failure in the front office’s effort to sign more-notable names to their starting rotation? Or was this lack of pre-lockout activity by design? While the answer probably lands somewhere in the middle, the team could be leaning toward a blueprint that echoes the work of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Tampa’s strategy of leaning on a larger pool of pitchers who can be shuffled between the big league roster and the minor leagues could be a viable route for the Twins next year. Most of the pitchers in that pool are undesignated in their classification as a starter or reliever. The math isn’t hard. The Rays have been in the playoff for three consecutive years, and their pitching is a major reason for that success. On the other hand, the Twins are coming off a last-place finish and will have to try something brand new with their pitching corps. With multiple holes in the rotation and few options remaining on the open market, this model could be worth a shot for a beleaguered Twins team hoping for a fortunate rebound.
Of course, the Rays have been successful for many reasons – not just an out-of-the-box inning share program. Their talent has matched their wits. They’ve had countless top prospects graduate to the big league club over the past few years. This is where the Twins could see their organization having success under Tampa’s scheme. Minnesota has eight pitchers in their top-20 prospect list that MLB.com expects to arrive sometime in 2022.
There are familiar top names on that list — Jordan Balazovic, Jhoan Duran, Matt Canterino and Josh Winder — and relative newcomers who joined the club via trade (Joe Ryan and Simeon Woods-Richardson). Either way, the Twins have some dudes on their way. Interrupted workloads from the canceled 2020 minor league season and varying injuries and road bumps last year make each of these pitchers strong fits for a Rays-style plan. The Twins may place some of those pitchers on a pitch count. Minnesota’s pitching corps could follow Tampa’s lead with these limitations in mind.
Under this blueprint, their pitching prospects could appear regularly without actually relying on a traditional five-man rotation. This approach could help with meticulously planning the workload on these young arms to continue to develop while still contributing to the big league club.
Now, the design isn’t going to win games on its own. The players need to execute. The Rays had 38 different pitchers make an appearance last season. Of that group, 17 pitchers threw between 30 and 155 innings, and only four of them had an ERA above 4.30. If more of those players had faltered, it’s unlikely that we’re talking about this blueprint being a viable option for the Twins next year.
The Rays were also able to juggle that many pitchers because they developed a pattern of routinely cycling players between the minor leagues and the MLB pitching staff. It requires a good amount of those players to have minor league options remaining, or at least a willingness to roll the dice on another team claiming a player if he was left exposed. While the picture of Minnesota’s 2022 staff is still being drawn, the vast majority of their current arms should have that availability. Among pitchers currently on the 40-man roster, 15 have options remaining for this year.
Sending pitchers down to the minor leagues when they pitch their way out of short-term availability isn’t new for the Twins front office. However, when we’ve seen them do it in the past, it’s usually out of desperation rather than design.
Seems like a fitting tagline for the current state of this team: “The Minnesota Twins, where desperation meets design.”
Of course, the outlook is unlikely to be that bleak when the team ultimately makes their way out of the lockout and into Fort Myers for the start of spring training. It’s unfair to judge the product until it’s finished, or at least until the picture becomes a little clearer. But there are some certainties today. The club will need more established arms, whether that means a traditional starter that can go 180-200 innings or three arms that can take 50-60 innings each.
They’ll also need their pitchers who cannot be optioned to the minor leagues – namely Bundy, Tyler Duffey and Taylor Rogers – to shove. Tampa’s pitching strategy of having a carousel of arms that nearly all perform at an above-average level could only work because they had 3-4 stalwarts that carried the load and ate innings.
Right now, the Twins are toeing the line between retooling their roster and shooting for contention with their core of offensive players. This strategy represents the delicate balance as the season goes on. If things go wrong, it makes it easier for the front office to cut bait and double down on a rebuild. If things go right, Minnesota could find themselves playing Tampa Bay in the postseason.