While various controversial decisions surrounding the Minnesota Twins’ offensive stars have set the Twitter world ablaze recently, it has taken the spotlight away from the biggest question mark heading into this season. Most were confident in the club’s ability to score runs based on the lineup on paper, but considerable skepticism was surrounding the starting rotation. There was confidence in Sonny Gray carrying his success over, but the Twins filled the rest of the rotation with young, unproven hurlers and reclamation-project veterans. The depth beyond those original five members? Virtually nothing except for prospects.
That uncertainty was certainly valid, but now we’re starting to see that the rotation depth is a pivotal aspect of this team that separates them from the 2021 club that lost 89 games.
Don’t be mistaken – there were many features of the 2021 Twins that sank the team by early May. But the starting pitching depth was the defining downfall. The Twins started last season with a rotation that consisted of José Berríos, Kenta Maeda, Michael Pineda, J.A. Happ, and Matt Shoemaker. Each of those pitchers had at least five years of MLB experience under their belt, so fans assumed they could be relied upon to deliver reasonable results.
That plan fell apart in a hurry. Pineda fought nagging injuries. Maeda took time to find his form before having season-ending surgery in August. The Shoemaker and Happ experiments proved to be disastrous. Their backup plans consisted of Randy Dobnak, Lewis Thorpe, and various mid-level prospects with little experience even at Triple-A. Starters outside of the original five combined for a brutal 5.68 ERA, leaving the team little chance to dig themselves out of their early hole. Without that safety net, the wheels started to come off and the whole thing bottomed out.
Now, the team finds themselves in first place in the AL Central, with seemingly not enough room for a soon-to-be fully loaded rotation. The picture in the onset of this season consisted of Gray, Joe Ryan, Chris Archer, Dylan Bundy, Bailey Ober, and Chris Paddack. With Paddack coming over via trade just days before Opening Day, it made for a pretty full house and left many observers perplexed. As these issues usually do, this one fixed itself in time. Gray and Ober missed a stretch due to injuries within the first few weeks. Then, when the Twins announced that Paddack would probably be out for months rather than weeks, fans were left with a dreary sense of déjà vu.
Last year’s rotation crumbled under the pressure when their depth was tested, and that was when they still had Berrios and Maeda in the fold. How could this year possibly be much different?
Enter a pair of young pitchers on opposite ends of the prospect spectrum. Rookie Josh Winder got his first taste of big league action, and Devin Smeltzer found his way back onto the 26-man roster after clearing outright waivers in the offseason. They both have performed rather admirably when they’ve filled in. Winder has twirled 15⅓ innings of 1.76 ERA ball as a starter, and Smeltzer impressed against the Cleveland Guardians in his 2022 debut last Saturday (5 IP, 1 ER, 3H, 2 K).
Yes, it’s a small sample size and things can turn in a hurry, but there is already more confidence in these two than the fill-ins of yesteryear. And it’s clear that they will play a vital role in determining the success of this year’s Twins club based on the sheer abundance of injuries around the league, especially among pitchers.
Beyond Winder and Smeltzer, the next names on the depth chart aren’t a sure thing. The Triple-A rotation includes top prospect Jordan Balazovic, but he’s just finally getting into game action after a delayed start to his season. Ronny Henriquez, who recently arrived in the Mitch Garver trade, has a live arm. However, he’s struggled with his control in his three starts this season. Cole Sands, a top-20 prospect in the Twins’ system, has looked shaky in four starts with a brutal 8.62 ERA.
Double-A starters have looked promising so far, but it’s hard to say whether they will get a shot at big league starts in 2022. Simeon Woods Richardson has had the best five weeks of any starter in the organization, pitching 32 ⅔ innings of 2.20 ERA ball and .800 WHIP. Matt Canterino is back in action and twirling 12.8 K/9 in eight starts with Wichita. Reigning minor league pitcher of the year Louie Varland has also raised some eyebrows with a fantastic 10.3 K/9 and a solid 3.58 ERA. Things would have to take a major turn for the worst for these three to get their chance at the major league level. Still, 2021 showed us just how quickly a season can sink when nobody can fill the holes in a rotation.
That’s just it. The depth of this 2022 Twins club is still being defined and developed. Starting the year with six viable options for five spots was a good problem to have, and now we’re seeing firsthand what comes next. Can these depth names keep this thing moving, or should we all brace for another bottoming out?