Minnesota’s Biggest Concern Will Be Stress-Tested Immediately

Photo Credit: Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

Bailey Ober did everything right last spring. He didn’t give up any runs, hits, or baserunners in the Grapefruit League. Still, the Minnesota Twins had him start in Triple-A because they had five pitchers to fill out the rotation. “The reality is, those things work themselves out. Pitch well, pitch consistently, [and] you’ll get your opportunities,” Derek Falvey told Ober after letting him know he’d start the year in St. Paul. “We told Bailey to control what he can control. We really like what he’s doing.”

Ober made five starts with the Saints and had a 2.38 ERA. He made his first start for the Twins on April 23 last year and finished the year with a 3.43 ERA (125 ERA+) in 144.1 innings pitched. Ober has secured his spot in the rotation this season, but Minnesota has less depth behind him. Pablo López, Joe Ryan, Chris Paddack, and Ober round out the top four. The Twins acquired the oft-injured Anthony DeSclafani in the Jorge Polanco trade to be their fifth starter. However, he will begin the year on the injured list and may be out for the season.

DeScalfani’s injury will allow Louie Varland to take the fifth spot in Minnesota’s rotation. The right-hander from North St. Paul was an effective reliever last season but would like to remain a starter. He deserves the opportunity, but the depth behind him is uncertain enough to be concerning. David Festa, Simeon Woods Richardson, and Brent Headrick are legitimate prospects. But asking them to get outs in Baltimore in May or New York and Houston in June is a tall order.

Nobody who spends $16 for parking and over $10 for beer at Target Field wants to hear that the Twins are cutting payroll. However, ownership has repeatedly stated that they want to operate in the $125 to $140 million range after spending $154 million last year. That means balking at an opportunity to sign Blake Snell to a short-term deal, even though he would be a perfect fit. It also means operating with less depth and less room for error.

After injuries sabotaged the Twins in the 2022 season, they changed their head trainer and went all-in on depth last year. They signed Michael A. Taylor to back up Byron Buxton and added Donovan Solano in spring training when he felt superfluous. Minnesota had so many pitchers that they sent Ober across the river to start the season. Their depth occasionally created difficult situations. In late May, they sent Matt Wallner down when he hit .636/.714/1.000 in five games for Max Kepler, who was barely hitting above the Mendoza line.

The Twins greatly benefitted from their depth. Taylor played in center all year while Buxton battled injury. Solano, 35, hit .282/.369/.391 (110 OPS+) in 134 games, and Kepler hit .306/.377/.549 in the second half. They ended up needing Ober almost immediately. Minnesota’s management had to make difficult decisions all season, but they paid off when the Twins won their first playoff series since 2002. However, they won’t have the luxury of that depth this season.

In December, Falvey said the Twins were making a concerted effort to add depth in the offseason. However, it may come from a different source this year. “On the position player side,” Falvey said at the winter meetings, “we have a few more guys that are closer to major league-ready that could be depth right from the get-go than maybe we had a couple [of] years ago.”

With how things have played out, Minnesota’s depth may come mainly from their farm system. That makes sense. Edouard Julien, Royce Lewis, and Matt Wallner broke out last year, and three rookies rarely make an impact as they did. Their pitching pipeline is also starting to produce major-league talent. The Twins took Ober and Varland late in the draft and will be in the rotation. They developed Jhoan Duran and Griffin Jax as late-inning relievers.

But the Twins lost Sonny Gray, who formed a one-two punch with López atop the rotation, to the St. Louis Cardinals in the offseason. Instead of replacing Gray with another starter, they built one of the league’s best bullpens. While their starters may pitch fewer innings, the bullpen should compensate for it with quality innings. However, Duran, Caleb Thielbar, and Justin Topa suffered injuries in spring training, reducing the bullpen’s depth.

Vegas still has Minnesota’s over/under win total at 87.5, ninth in the league, and first in the AL Central. The Twins start the season at Kauffman Stadium, where they should take the series from the Kansas City Royals (73.5). But Minnesota faces the Milwaukee Brewers (77.5), Cleveland Guardians (79.5), and Los Angeles Dodgers (102.5) immediately after that. The Brewers and Guardians aren’t contenders. However, the Twins play their second series in Milwaukee, and Cleveland has typically been their best competition in the AL Central.

The Twins must build off their slow start to build off last season. Minnesota entered the 2021 season with World Series aspirations. But Alex Colomé’s disastrous April set them back immediately, and they never recovered. The Twins have more young talent and pitching depth than in 2021. Still, they have less margin for error this year after scaling back payroll. Teams can’t win the division in April but can lose it. The group they have, sans a starter and three relievers, must hold their own through a tough early stretch to capitalize on last year’s success.

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