Minnesota Twins fans like to think they’re used to broken promises.
The frustration is palpable at times, but 30-plus years without a title and 18 years without a playoff win will do that. And no promise has come back to bite fans more often than the pledge to improve the big league pitching staff.
So when the Twins hired Derek Falvey as their president of baseball operations after the dreadful 2016 season, many figured he would bring with him the tools necessary for building an elite pitching pipeline, just as he helped do in Cleveland. Twins fans were painfully familiar with the myriad of quality starters who provided strong performance, even an American League pennant, for the team now known as the Guardians. The Twins faithful gave him a few years to draft and develop the same kind of arms that made his former team so successful, but the outlook looked questionable over this past off-season.
Now, the pipeline is starting to produce a substantial product, even if it looks different than many expected.
The initial expectation, one that was not looking like it was going to be met heading into this season, was that Falvey and his staff would draft and develop arms that could make an impact for years to come. In his first draft with the Twins, Falvey selected three pitchers who many expected to be contributors, or on the precipice of making contributions, to the big league staff by 2022. Needless to say, Landon Leach, Blayne Enlow, and Charlie Barnes have not turned into those guys. Enlow still has promise even though he’s recovering from Tommy John surgery, but the other two aren’t even in the organization anymore.
The next year’s draft class of pitchers has started to peek its head around the corner, with Josh Winder and Cole Sands looking MLB-ready this season. The 2019 group of pitchers drafted by the Twins looks like it could have some promise, too, with Matt Canterino and Louie Varland having fantastic starts to their seasons at Double-A.
It’s somewhat encouraging to have these players developing in the system, but it’s not exactly what fans think they were promised. These names are not, or at least not yet, cornerstones to the pitching plans going forward.
Instead, the pipeline is making its biggest strides with players acquired via trade. And actually, that’s how it worked when Falvey was in Cleveland. Think of some of those names that were foundational to Cleveland’s rotation success. Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, and Carlos Carrasco were all in the rotation during the team’s run to the 2016 World Series, and all were acquired via trade.
- Cleveland traded Jake Westbrook, who was on an expiring deal, for Kluber.
- They got Bauer for one year of Shin-Soo Choo and Tony Sipp.
- Clevinger cost them less than two years of reliever Vinnie Pestano.
- Carrasco was the main return for a year and a half of Cliff Lee.
There’s a trend here. Cleveland’s front office was able to fortify their rotation for years at a time, thanks to deals that shipped expiring veteran contracts elsewhere for young pitching prospects. Now Falvey has shown success using that same blueprint with the Twins. As unpopular as the deals might have been at the time, trading one year of Taylor Rogers, a year and a half of José Berríos, and two months of Nelson Cruz was able to net them potential long-term rotation mainstays.
Chris Paddack currently has a 3.15 ERA at the big league level and is under control for at least three more years. The Twins landed Simeon Woods Richardson from the Toronto Blue Jays, and he has yet to allow a single earned run in four starts at Double-A. Minnesota’s Opening Day starter, Joe Ryan, is a front-runner for American League Rookie of the Year and is controlled through 2028. And oh yeah, they got him for just eight weeks’ worth of a 41-year-old designated hitter.
This is the pitching pipeline that Twins fans have been clamoring for, but it’s not the one they expected.
That’s not to say that the work is done and the team can lock these trade returns into the rotation for the next six years. But it certainly lays the foundation for sustained success. It allows the team to take advantage of young pitchers in their arbitration and pre-arb years while using resources to supplement the roster elsewhere. It also gives a solid understanding that some of the trades involving fan-favorite veterans on expiring deals can net huge returns.
Chances are, the incredible rotation success we’ve seen in this season’s first month will eventually regress to the mean, at least to some extent. But the newfound confidence that fans have in the front office’s ability to acquire and develop young pitching is, if nothing else, quite promising.