Have the Twins Given Themselves Enough Margin For Error Early In the Season?

Photo Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

On March 2, Bailey Ober retired nine of the 10 batters he faced in a spring training game against the Philadelphia Phillies. According to StatCast, he topped out at 94.8 mph and elicited praise from Bryce Harper. “If Bailey Ober throws 95 [mph] like that,” Harper said, “good luck to everyone in the Central Division.”

On Sunday, Ober faced the Central for the first time this year, and the Kansas City Royals shelled him. According to ESPN, Ober sat 92-93 mph and gave up eight runs in 1.1 innings in an 11-0 loss at Kauffman Stadium. Nobody should overreact to one outing or early-season bullpen play. But Ober gave up a career-high six runs, and Kody Funderburk allowed two more to score.

Funderburk ultimately gave up four runs. Two of Ober’s runners scored. He allowed one run on an error at first and another on a home run.

“Just one of those days,” Ober said, upset with his performance. “Obviously, you don’t plan for it, but I’ll go back, look at it, and see if anything was going weird. But executed some, they hit them. Didn’t execute some, they hit them.”

Brady Singer pitched well, giving up three hits and striking out ten in seven innings. But the Royals kept things close for most of the series. Game 1 was tied 1-1 until the ninth inning when the Twins scored on Chris Stratton’s wild pitch and a Royals error. Similarly, Game 2 was 1-1 until Minnesota scored four runs off of Will Smith in the ninth. Game 3 would have played out similarly had the Twins gotten a better start from Ober.

“I can’t sit here and tell you I know what was wrong,” said Rocco Baldelli. “I’m guessing he threw a lot of pitches in the middle of the plate. They hit some pitches that weren’t necessarily in the middle of the plate, too. But overall, it was a rough one. There’s no way around that.”

It would be too early to harp on pitching, but it was a concern heading into the season. The Twins acquired Anthony DeSclafani in the Jorge Polanco trade to be their fifth starter. However, the oft-injured 33-year-old pitcher underwent arm surgery and will miss the season without ever pitching for Minnesota. Louie Varland will start in his place, and there’s not a lot of proven depth behind him.

The St. Louis Cardinals signed Sonny Gray in the offseason, so Minnesota’s starting rotation was almost certainly going to be less effective than it was last year. But its relief corps was supposed to be a strength. However, Jhoan Duran, Caleb Thielbar, and Justin Topa got injured in spring training, thinning the bullpen’s ranks.

On Sunday, we got a glimpse of Minnesota’s bullpen depth. Daniel Duarte retired the side in the first inning he pitched. But he gave up a leadoff double to Kyle Isbel, the nine-hitter, and walked Vinnie Pasqantino in the fifth. Cole Sands gave up a home run. Jay Jackson, 36, was the Twins’ best reliever.

“Our bullpen came in and did a decent job of basically just doing their job and helping us finish the game right there,” Baldelli said. “Getting some of those guys to touch the mound and open up their seasons was important, too.”

Sunday was only the second time in Ober’s pro career that he failed to pitch at least three innings. The only other time was his Single-A debut on April 26, 2018, where he allowed six runs and only recorded two outs. He will likely bounce back, but he almost has to because of Minnesota’s unproven starter depth this season.

“I don’t think I have an answer for why or what was different today,” said Ryan Jeffers, who caught Ober. “He executed some pitches. There were some you could say you want better locations or a little bit more down. But you start getting picky and choosy there. They just jumped all over it right off the jump, and they had a great day.”

Ober has had some trouble against Kansas City. Entering Sunday, the Royals went 9-for-13 against him with three homers, a triple, and a double. KC was hitting .342/.363/.526 in 80 plate appearances against Ober at Kauffman Stadium, but Ober doesn’t believe the Royals have his number.

“I remember that start, and a lot of it was just kind of, anything that was put in play found a hole,” Ober said. “It wasn’t necessarily hard-hit balls. But today, there were a lot of hard-hit balls and, obviously, a couple of broken-bat singles. I don’t know. Maybe they see me pretty good.”

The Twins don’t play in Kansas City again until September. By then, the starting staff may look different, and we’ll know if the bullpen recovered. Losing a starter and multiple relievers before the season starts will hurt any team. Perhaps the Royals game is an outlier, and Minnesota’s pitching holds steady for most of the year. But we’ve seen them bottom out three games in, and it’s challenging to know what changes they can make if it becomes an issue early in the season.

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Photo Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

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