Falvey and Levine's Fates Rest On If They Can Create A Pitching Pipeline

Photo credit: Bill Vilona-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Twins made a flurry of trades after the deadline. It’s almost as if Derek Falvey and Thad Levine got sick of everyone criticizing their lack of activity before the lockout on Dec. 2. That’s not really how front offices make decisions, of course. But the Twins are coming off a 73-win season. They had two years left on Josh Donaldson‘s contract and a pitching rotation to fill out. Something had to give.

Now the New York Yankees are paying off the second half of Donaldson’s $94 million deal. However, the Twins still have to figure out their pitching situation. Sonny Gray helps. He can headline a rotation that otherwise has Dylan Bundy, Bailey Ober, Joe Ryan, and Randy Dobnak penciled in. Bundy, 29, was once a top prospect, but now he’s a reclamation project. Ober and Ryan showed promise last year but are hardly sure things at this point in their careers. Dobnak signed a five-year, $9.25 million extension last year, then got hurt in July.

Everyone is fixated on whether the Twins can land Trevor Story and if they got the better of the Yankees in the trade. Fair enough. Minnesota hasn’t had a reliable shortstop since Cristian Guzmán, and they never beat the Bronx Bombers at anything. But Falvey and Levine’s fate rests on their ability to develop pitchers. Maybe Story chooses the Twin Cities. Perhaps New York sold low on Gary Sanchez. But none of that matters if the Twins don’t have pitching.

VegasInsider has Minnesota’s over-under at 75.5 wins, the same as Kansas City Royals and a smidge below the Cleveland Guardians and Detroit Tigers. FanGraphs is a little more bullish, projecting 79.4 wins for the hometown nine. PECOTA has the Twins at 84.4 wins, but that’s an outlier. Seventy-six wins would be a disappointing season. Eighty-four would at least get people to come out to the ballpark and watch them on TV. Eighty is decidedly meh.

Why is there such a discrepancy? I’m inclined to believe the projection systems like ZiPS and PECOTA factor in prospects more effectively than Vegas does. National gamblers may not know who Jordan Balazovic, Josh Winder, and Jhoan Duran are. But FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus have methods to factor in whether they’ll make the majors and what impact they’ll have.

Die-hard fans certainly have heard of Balazovic, Winder, and Duran. They’ve tracked their progress in the minors and maybe seen them in St. Paul. But everyone knows the pitfalls that prospects face, especially pitchers.

  • Stephen Gonsalves never fully merged onto the highway to 95.
  • Kohl Stewart‘s big arm enticed Texas A&M to offer him a football scholarship and the Twins to take him 4th overall in 2013. Stewart chose the $4.5 million signing bonus and reported to Elizabethton, Tenn. But six years later, Minnesota released him after six starts.
  • Fernando Romero had a 1.88 ERA in his first five starts and a 7.07 ERA in 2019. He’s pitching in Japan now.

I could list many more pitchers, but that’s not the point. The key is to focus less on individual talent and more on how many pitching prospects the Twins have. Are you ruing the loss of Chase Petty? Don’t. Yeah, he’s a teenager who throws 100 mph. But many of those guys sit in the low 90s when they hit the majors if they get there at all. Many pitching prospects fail to develop effective secondary stuff. Almost all of them get injured. Ultimately, teams just need enough of their young hurlers to reach the majors healthy and equipped with a slider to fill out a rotation.

In that sense, the Twins are doing the right thing. According to The Athletic, seven of Minnesota’s top-10 prospects are pitchers. That includes Ryan (2), who’s technically still a rookie, and Petty (10), who the Twins traded to Cincinnati. But Aaron Gleeman has North St. Paul’s Louie Varland as his No. 12 prospect. lists six pitchers among Minnesota’s top 10. FanGraphs has seven.

It’s not just Balazovic, Winder, and Duran. Simeon Woods Richardson and Matt Canterino are also on each top 10 list. The Twins got Woods Richardson in the José Berríos trade and took Canterino in the second round of the 2019 draft. Pitching has been a focus of the Falvey-Levine regime, and the number of top pitching prospects they have indicates that they’re doing something right.

But Falvey and Levine are making a push to be competitive this season. MLB expanded the playoffs to 12 teams, and the Twins play in a weak division. Why not go for it? Still, they’re not going to go anywhere if they don’t get quality starts from their young pitchers.

The Chicago White Sox loaded up on prospects for years and are reaping the benefits. The AL East has three juggernauts, the Houston Astros are coming off a 95-win season, and the Seattle Mariners finally have something going. The Twins will need to pitch to hang with the best teams in the junior circuit.

It’s one thing to have a gaggle of prospects. It’s another to have an elite rotation. Forget Trevor Story, Falvey and Levine’s fate rests on whether or not their hand-picked pitching prospects can shove once they reach the big leagues.

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