Bailey Ober didn’t know if he’d make the Minnesota Twins roster in late March. That’s typical for prospects or fringe players as Spring Training winds down. But Ober, 28, had earned a spot. He had a 3.82 ERA in 31 major-league starts and dominated in Fort Myers. Alas, the Twins had aspirations of contending and loaded up on pitching. Ober looked like the odd man out.
“It’s hard not knowing what’s going to happen,” Ober told The Athletic. “But I mean, it is what it is. That’s their call and how they’re going about their decision-making. Got to respect it. It’s just whatever comes down to it. I’ll be ready to take the ball wherever I’m at.”
Ober made his first four starts of the season with the St. Paul Saints. He pitched 17.2 Triple-A innings and owned a 2.55 ERA when the Twins called him up on April 23. Ober gave up three hits and an earned run against the Washington Nationals, a quality start during an early lull for Minnesota. Afterward, he was honest about how disappointed he was to start the year in the minors.
The first two starts that I had with the Saints, it was a little tough mentally, but I had some good conversations with our pitching coach over there, Cibney Bello. Re-locked me in and realized what I’m here for and why I do this. After those conversations with him, it kind of shifted my mentality a little bit to get back to just being dominant on the mound and trying to get the opposing team out. It doesn’t matter who it is. That…really helped me out.
Sonny Gray, Pablo López, and Joe Ryan have been Minnesota’s three most dominant pitchers. Gray and López were All-Stars this year, and López and Ryan have thrown complete-game shutouts. But Ober deserves part of the credit for the rotation’s success. The starters have kept the Twins afloat in the first half, and Ober’s 2.61 ERA (166 ERA+) is the best among the group. Granted, he’s pitched fewer innings than Gray, López, and Ryan, but he also didn’t choose to start the year in Triple-A.
The Twins may have gotten lost in the AL Central morass without their starting rotation, which entered the break with the third-best ERA in baseball. Jhoan Durán has a 208 ERA+, and Brock Stewart and Caleb Thielbar have been effective when healthy. But the rest of the bullpen has been inconsistent, and the lineup has been a letdown – especially considering how much money the front office has sunk into it.
Minnesota has spent $300 million combined on Carlos Correa (92 OPS+) and Byron Buxton (101) and $30 million on Christian Vázquez (55). Joey Gallo (108 OPS+), Michael A. Taylor (82), and Max Kepler (88) usually occupy the three outfield spots. Young players like Royce Lewis (127 OPS+), Alex Kirilloff (114), and Edouard Julien (133) have stepped up, but it’s not enough to buoy the 22nd offense in baseball. Ober has had to do his part to even out an unbalanced team.
Not only is Ober a reliable No. 4 in the rotation, but he is a buffer between Minnesota’s most reliable pitchers and uncertainty. Ober had to start his season in St. Paul because Kenta Maeda, 35, was the Twins’ fifth starter. Maeda was Minnesota’s ace in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. But he had a 4.66 ERA (91 ERA+) in 106.1 innings in 2021 and missed last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Maeda made four starts this season before suffering an injury after giving up ten earned runs in three innings against the New York Yankees. He has a 1.59 ERA in his three starts since returning to the rotation, but he’s a free agent next season with a concerning injury history.
Louie Varland slotted behind Ober on the depth chart and also started his season in St. Paul. The North St. Paul and Concordia grad showed flashes of promise in his ten major-league starts, but he gave up 14 home runs and is back in Triple-A. Ober and Varland represent something critical to Minnesota’s future, though. Derek Falvey acquired Gray, López, and Ryan via trade. Teams can build rotations through trades; the Cleveland Guardians did when Falvey was there. But building a long-term pipeline is vital to the Twins’ long-term success.
The Twins took Ober in the 12th round out of the College of Charleston of the 2017 draft. Two years later, they took Varland in the 15th round. Minnesota won’t always have a top-five pick like they did this year, but they’ll always get to select in the teens. Developing Ober into a reliable starter is a meaningful accomplishment. It’s a sign that Falvey’s pitching pipeline is coming together. Good pitching won’t only cover for a lackluster offense, but it’s vital for winning in the playoffs. Ron Gardenhire’s Twins could always hit, but they didn’t have the pitching to succeed in the postseason. Similarly, the Bomba Squad couldn’t hit their way out of the Bronx. Pitching is vital to breaking Minnesota’s playoff drought.
Ober is still relatively green, and he’ll have to stave off fatigue in the second half. He pitched a career-high 108.3 innings between Triple-A and the majors in 2021. However, he had not thrown 80 innings in a season before that. Ober has pitched 82.2 innings in the majors this year and 17.2 innings in St. Paul. He and the team have not expressed concern about his inning count, but it’s something to monitor in the second half. Ober has turned himself into a vital part of Minnesota’s rotation this year after having to start the season in the minors.