Can the Twins Piggyback Their Way To the Postseason?

Photo Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

A lack of impact pitching almost doomed the Minnesota Twins season. Minnesota’s 3.91 team ERA ranks just 16th in baseball. Top-end starters like Joe Ryan (3.65 ERA) and Sonny Gray (3.04 ERA) have been consistently solid for the Twins, while newly acquired Tyler Mahle (2.51 ERA as a Twin) looked good in his few starts with the team. Besides those guys, though, it’s been a mixed bag for the team’s starters.

Dylan Bundy and Chris Archer have been the faces of the back end of the Twins rotation. They have also been the poster child for Minnesota’s reliance on the “five and fly” approach. They’ve been removing starters from the game sooner rather than later so they can go through the lineup a third time as infrequently as possible. Bundy and Archer have made 23 starts this season. However, Archer averages around 4.1 innings per start, while Bundy isn’t much better with 4.2 innings per start.

Minnesota’s theory isn’t fundamentally flawed. However, the issue has been trying to pair that approach with the team’s bullpen. The relief corps has become unreliable, and the Twins’ need for more innings from the pen has exacerbated the issue.

The Twins probably didn’t plan on using Bundy and Archer as starters at this point in the season. But injuries have sidelined other pitchers like Josh Winder and Bailey Ober they used this year. Those guys are coming back soon.

Therefore, the Twins need to channel their inner second grader and “piggyback” their way to the finish with the back end of their rotation.

That could be changing soon, though, with help hopefully coming back in September. Twins President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey gave an injury update on Monday for a handful of pitchers who can help the club in their playoff push. Mahle is expected to come back soon for the rotation. Winder, Ober, and Randy Dobnak are other starters who are close to returning to the big league club.

Winder threw four innings in his first appearance off the injured list for St. Paul. He only gave up two runs on four hits and two walks. Ober is starting a rehab stint in Ft. Myers this week, and Dobnak’s rehab continues apace.

There’s not much time left in the regular season, so Falvey noted that those pitchers will likely end up in the bullpen. That means Bundy and Archer will continue making starts for this team without getting past the fifth inning. Having those arms back and piggybacking some of them off of Archer and Bundy might be able to benefit everyone.

What would piggybacking look like? Bundy and Archer would each get a designated long reliever to immediately follow one of their starts. Winder and Ober can each be assigned to succeed a starter, and Baldelli can give them the ball for the next couple of innings. For example, Archer can throw four or five innings and hand the ball to Winder to try and get two more innings. That gets you into the seventh inning with the full slate of bullpen arms to turn to Caleb Thielbar, Jhoan Durán, and other top hurlers without feeling the need to bring them in too early in a game.

It gives a set of consistency to Bundy and Archer to know that they are expected to throw fewer innings and allow them to throw harder in their limited amount of work. Winder, Ober, and even Dobnak can still be in a starter-like routine with set dates on when they will pitch every handful of days but in smaller doses. They can fully use their stuff in the small innings without worrying about reaggravating something and landing back on the injured list.

There is some precedent from the Twins for this idea. A month ago, the Twins seemed to pair Archer with Cole Sands. They did this in the Aug. 7 game against the Toronto Blue Jays when Archer pitched five innings and Sands followed with three. Sands also relieved Aaron Sanchez last week in Houston and threw two innings to get Minnesota’s late-inning bullpen plan back on track.

Then there is another potential benefit waiting in the wings for the Twins. Kenta Maeda has spent the entire 2022 season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. On Monday, the team announced that they will not activate him during the regular season. Maeda may not pitch until April 2023, but it feels like the Twins are keeping the door open if he feels good enough to go for the postseason should they get in.

If that plan were to happen, Minnesota would only use Maeda only out of the bullpen, something he has done before in the playoffs with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Bringing back a guy who hasn’t pitched in any level of live games since August 2021 is a gamble, especially if it were on the brightest stage in the postseason. But if Maeda is healthy and willing to pitch in that situation, he brings a 2.87 career playoff ERA that he’s earned through 37.2 postseason innings pitched. Ober and Ryan would help eat innings in a long relief type role, but Maeda could bring the playoff experience they lack.

Using Maeda this way wouldn’t just be a gimmick to sneak into the postseason; it’s a way to be competitive in those games. Even though Baldelli is known for having a short leash, almost any manager will curtail a starter’s outing in the postseason.

The Twins will have to use extra starters to give high-leverage relievers opportunities to win in the postseason. They have run out of quality pitching in previous playoff runs. Therefore, they relied too much on too many arms in one game.

It would be a creative approach. However, the Twins have been willing to go against traditional pitching norms with the five-and-dive starters, so why not build on it with the piggybacking approach? A plan like this can get their young hopeful starters more involved while not asking them to do too much in a postseason push and beyond.

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