When Derek Falvey and Thad Levine took over the Minnesota Twins, you could explain why in one word: pitching. By the time he landed the top job, Falvey had built a pitching pipeline that the Cleveland Guardians are still maintaining and enjoying today. If he could do it there, why not here?
And not only did Falvey’s Cleveland pitchers perform well, but they had velocity! Strikeouts! It was a vastly different philosophy from two decades of Terry Ryan employing “pitch-to-contact” types. Forget a World Series; Twins fans were desperate to see a pitch thrown above 94 mph.
2022 was supposed to be the year we saw that pipeline come to fruition. Joe Ryan (acquired via trade by Falvey’s Twins in 2021) had already made it to the majors and was penciled into a starting role. Jhoan Duran (acquired via 2018 trade) started the year in the bullpen. Bailey Ober (2017 Draft) and Josh Winder (2018 Draft) were going to figure into the mix.
Beyond them, prospects like Jordan Balazovic (pre-Falvey acquisition, 2016 Draft), Matt Canterino (2019 Draft), Ronny Henriquez (2022 trade), and Simeon Woods Richardson (2021 trade) were all on the horizon.
And hey, Ryan and Duran delivered. But the rest of the arms? There were a lot of ice baths involved. Ober and Winder missed huge chunks of the season. 26-year-old Chris Paddack, who the Twins traded for on Opening Day Eve, went under the Tommy John knife. So did Caterino, who will likely miss the 2023 season. Balazovic has a 7.47 ERA at AAA.
That’s all bad news when your biggest weakness is pitching. So six years into the regime, it’s fair to ask: What’s happening? Is the pitching pipeline broken, or is it just in the awkward middle-Pokémon stage before these prospects evolve into a Major League staff?
Being six games out of a playoff spot on Sep. 19 is depressing enough, so let’s look at the case for the latter. The case that the pitching pipeline is delayed and not broken starts with the majors. Ryan emerged as a terrific mid-rotation starter this season, posting a 3.61 ERA through 137 innings.
Dating back to 2000, that’s the seventh-lowest ERA by a 26-and-under Twins starter with 130-plus innings. For comparison’s sake, that’s also lower than all but José Berríos‘ final season in Minnesota. He might not have major velocity, but his fastball movement gets to the 9.00 K/9 threshold. The list of Twins starters to do that is Ryan, Johan Santana, Kenta Maeda, Francisco Liriano, Jake Odorizzi, and Berríos. That’s it.
And if you want fireballers, Duran can throw a marshmallow through a bank vault. So many words have already been said about Duran, but he’s truly a phenom and a one-of-a-kind pitcher. Nobody throws 101 mph with movement, except for Duran. Only 2019 Luke Jackson has had more strikeouts per nine than Duran (11.8) and a ground ball rate of over 60% this century. Duran is an ace reliever as long as his arm holds up.
But two pitchers aren’t exactly a pipeline. We’ll have to go a bit deeper than that and look for signs of hope elsewhere.
Let’s stick with players at the MLB level. Ober and Winder just made their returns, with Ober impressing in five innings of one-hit, no-run ball in Cleveland with the season on the line. The Twins lost the game, but you can’t fault Ober there.
It’s a small sample, but Ober is at a 3.49 ERA on the season and is at 3.98 in 131 career innings. His strikeout rate dipped this year, but if he can get back to 2021 levels, he can still be a strong back-end option.
Winder has had a tougher season (4.17 ERA), but he’s also back to pitching. Paddack should return sometime next season as well. If neither of them can crack future rotations, both of them might be able to flourish as relievers. Winder has a strong fastball/slider combo, while Paddack rocks a great change-up. Both could potentially help the bullpen, especially if they can get more velocity in relief.
There is actual, unqualified reason for optimism at Triple-A. Louie Varland (2019 Draft) grabbed some spot-starts in September, which were well-deserved. Varland dominated Double- and Triple-A batters all season, posting a K/9 rate of 10.2 and 11.4 at both stops, respectively. Woods Richardson is also dominating, with over a strikeout per inning and an ERA under 3.00 at Double-A. Henriquez shows promise if he can control the long ball.
Even Balazovic is making strides lately. In his last five starts, he’s got a 2.14 ERA with 28 strikeouts and nine walks over 21 innings. You want to see that walk rate improve, but baby steps. It isn’t driven by a great BABIP, as his batted balls have fallen for a .300 or higher average in every game. He’s just getting outs at the plate.
Then you have two true wild cards in Canterino and 2022 second-rounder Connor Prielipp. Both figure to be on the fast track one recovered from Tommy John. Canterino won’t be on the mound until 2024, but he destroyed Double-A pitchers to the tune of 50Ks in 34.1 innings as a starter.
Prielipp hasn’t pitched as a pro, but his stats at Alabama were incredible, if only for a short time. Pitching in the SEC for 21 innings, Prielipp struck out 35 batters and allowed zero runs. Not earned runs. Runs. He has to recover well, but that gamble could easily pay off for Falvey and Levine.
It’s been a rough year for the pipeline, but things should start flowing again next year. Do they have a Shane Bieber or Triston McKenzie in the bunch? It’s hard to say whether Falvey can duplicate that magic in Minneapolis. But this year had too many injuries to see what it had, leaving us to wait until next year to see if this pipeline can deliver on the hype.