If somehow the Major League Baseball season starts on time, pitchers and catchers will be reporting in less than a week. As the Minnesota Twins work to get their roster ready for the 2022 season, the pitching staff remains one of the biggest uncertainties heading into the season.
In 2021, the staff was looking to continue the solid success of the 2020 season, where they ranked fourth in baseball with a 3.58 team ERA. A Cy Young caliber season from Kenta Maeda and the continued rise of the team’s best young pitcher, José Berríos, led the effort.
The pitching staff will have no resemblance to what it looked like this time last year when the season starts. Maeda will miss most, if not all, of the 2022 season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. But the biggest blow is that the Twins traded the two-time All-Star to the Toronto Blue Jays midway through last year.
The rotation is now without its two best arms from the previous season, and veterans J.A. Happ and Michael Pineda are not on the roster. So how does a team that still feels it can compete do just that with the lack of proven pitchers? The answer is to look to the not too distant future with their new crop of young arms led by Joe Ryan.
The right-hander was brought into Minnesota last July via the Nelson Cruz trade. Currently ranked as the No. 6 prospect by MLB.com, Ryan leads this unit because he was one of the first high-profile prospects out of the Twins pitching pipeline to make his big league debut. If the Twins didn’t feel he was ready to make his MLB debut, he would have stayed in St. Paul longer than just two starts after returning from the Olympics. With Ryan leading the way, he has a chance to fill the shoes of the team’s former top young arm with the potential to be a true ace.
Baseball’s lockout has paused any of Minnesota’s planned offseason actions with the pitching staff. Their only move to this point has been adding righty Dylan Bundy, who should be nowhere near the top of the rotation if the team has postseason aspirations. Given how the Twins usually go about their offseason plans, it’s hard to imagine they land a No. 1 or 2 starter in the same offseason. That could leave a vacuum at the top of the rotation that Ryan would be expected to fill in 2022.
While Ryan is a top pitching prospect and has pitched on the US Olympic team in last year’s Olympics, he doesn’t have much to show yet for his major league resume. He threw a 4.05 ERA with a 10.13 K/9 rate in 26.2 innings pitched during his first bit of big-league action. A modest start, but he showed enough flashes to get the team excited, especially with his ability to generate swings and misses.
Then again, Berrios didn’t exactly get his big league career off on the right foot either. He had an 8.02 ERA in 58.1 innings pitched in 2016 and finished his rookie season in Triple-A. Despite a lackluster first season, the Twins still were willing to give Berríos every opportunity not just to be in the rotation but in a role as a top-of-the-rotation starter. He was their best pitching prospect at the time, and they didn’t have many high-quality pitchers around him either.
It didn’t take long for a turnaround in 2017 when he pitched a 3.85 ERA in 145.2 innings while racking up a 2.7 WAR. That season he cemented himself as a major league pitcher and continued to develop into the pitcher he is now.
Ryan and Berríos didn’t have spectacular starts to their careers, but they could quickly turn themselves into quality starting pitchers after some additional experience. Another way the two are similar is their ability to make batters whiff.
According to Baseball Savant, Ryan and Berríos share a common strikeout pitch, their curveball. Berríos throws his curveball 30.5 percent of the time, and Ryan only throws it at an eight percent clip. Both can use it as their main pitch to generate swings and misses. Ryan’s curveball has a 50 percent whiff rate, while Berrios had a 34 percent whiff rate in 2021. Both can also generate most of their pitches’ movements when they are throwing fastballs.
Ryan has good command of his fastball but relies too much on the pitch. He threw it 65 percent of the time last season. Berríos threw his fastball only 31 percent in 2016 and has seen it drop to as little as 26 percent in 2021. The Twins have adopted the philosophy of limiting fastball and prioritizing breaking pitches. More time working with the young right-hander will give them time to craft a game plan that can highlight his curveball and other pitches like Berrios did in 2017. Berríos continued to do once Derek Falvey and Thad Levine took over baseball operations.
It seems that the Twins have the same general plan for Ryan that they had with Berríos. Get them some reps early and hope their ability allows them to expedite their development into a top of the rotation starter. Ervin Santana was the only pitcher ahead of Berríos in the rotation in 2017. Looking at how barren of proven pitching the current Twins rotation is, it seems like Santana, 39, would have an excellent chance to crack a top spot.
Minnesota’s hopes for a homegrown ace don’t rest solely on Simeon Woods-Richardson (No. 3 prospect per MLB.com), who the Twins brought over in the Berríos trade, and Jordan Balazovic (No. 4). But Ryan has already got a jump start on his big league experience and the opportunity to be a leader in the Twins rotation. There is a good chance that Minnesota adds another starter once the lockout is over, but Ryan will be a big part of their plans.
The Twins won’t expect Ryan to be an ace right away, but a good jump to take would be one similar to Berríos from 2016 to 2017. Last a whole season in the big leagues while providing the team with quality starts as he develops his pitches against big league hitters. He is already off to a better start than Minnesota’s former top young arm. If Ryan can show the potential the Twins see in him more consistently next season, they might be able to fill out a rotation in short order.