With pitchers and catchers reporting to Fort Myers in less than one week from today, the Minnesota Twins have three established MLB starting pitchers: Pablo López, Joe Ryan, and Bailey Ober. While these three hurlers are fortified anchors at the top of Minnesota’s starting rotation, the final two spots are set to be filled with less certain commodities. Some combination of Chris Paddack, Louie Varland, and recently-acquired Anthony DeSclafani will occupy the Twins’ fourth and fifth starting rotations.
Paddack looks like a lock to make the starting rotation unless he gets hurt, so the real competition is between Varland and DeSclafani for the fifth rotation spot. Varland and DeSclafani will compete for the final spot in camp. Yet, upon reading the tea leaves, it appears the Twins will name DeSclafani their fifth starting pitcher once the team leaves Fort Myers because he’s out of minor-league options. The debate around whether Paddack, Varland, or DeSclafani deserve the final two rotation spots is warranted. But what if the Twins aren’t planning to use a traditional rotation this upcoming season?
In 2018, the Tampa Bay Rays started using “openers.” That had relief pitchers like Ryne Stanek or Sergio Romo, who “started” the first inning of games to hamper the opposing team’s run potential by taking advantage of platoon splits. This method was initially effective. But the Rays and teams who later adopted this philosophy, like the Twins, eventually deviated from this short-term fad, shifting back to using stretched-out starters to sustain bullpen health and productivity.
Teams like Tampa Bay and Minnesota continue to use openers in designated “bullpen games,” they are rarely used and often negatively affect the structure of the team’s bullpen for numerous games afterward. The Twins are unlikely to use openers to bolster the back end of their rotation. But they could use Paddack, Varland, DeSclafani, and the abundance of stretch relievers on the 40-man roster to eat innings in shorter stretches.
Although this plan wouldn’t work for most teams, the Twins are uniquely positioned. Toward the end of last season, Paddack and Varland showed they could excel as multi-inning relievers. In the ALDS against the Houston Astros, Paddack generated a 0.27 WHIP and 14.7 K/9 while striking out six of the 12 Astros hitters he faced. Paddack also surrendered only one hit over 3 2/3 innings pitched.
Meanwhile, Varland struggled in ten starts last season, owning a 5.30 ERA, 5.49 FIP, and 20.6% home run to fly ball rate. But he thrived as a reliever late in the season. Varland often pitched multiple innings at a time and significantly improved his numbers. He faced 42 batters and owned a 1.50 ERA and 2.84 FIP while allowing only two home runs. Varland received minimal action in the postseason, throwing only ⅔ of an inning in two games, but his late-season resurgence was a promising development nevertheless.
DeSclafani has started 169 games in his nine MLB seasons, but the 33-year-old has worked as a reliever. DeSclafani has made 11 relief appearances, the first in 2014 with the Miami Marlins and his most recent on July 23, 2023 with the San Francisco Giants. He has a 5.29 ERA as a reliever while striking out 13 and walking three over 17 innings pitched and 75 batters faced. DeSclafani is a veteran who primarily uses his slider and sinker and doesn’t profile well as a reliever with 34th percentile fastball velocity. But the Twins could maximize him in a multi-inning role. Since Minnesota’s three end-of-the-rotation starting options are prime candidates to find increased value as multi-inning relievers, would it behoove the franchise to implement a piggybacking system this upcoming season?
Hypothetically, Paddack could occupy the fourth slot in the starting rotation. The Twins could have him pitch the game’s first three innings, having the oft-injured 28-year-old go through the opposing team’s lineup only once. Then Varland could enter the game for Paddack, maximizing his stuff over two or three innings before turning the ball over to the Twins mid-to-high leverage relievers.
On games DeSclafani starts, the team could have him pitch three or four innings before having one of the many young stretch relief options take over. They could call up and stretch out multiple pitchers who will likely start a Triple-A for multiple innings, including Josh Winder, Cole Sands, Simeon Woods Richardson, Matt Canterino, Brent Headrick, and Zack Weiss. They could also use players who aren’t on the 40-man roster, like Hobie Harris, Randy Dobnak, Caleb Boushley, Ryan Jensen, Ronny Henriquez, and A.J. Alexy.
Although the Twins lack frontline starting pitcher talent after López, Ryan, and Ober, they have a lot of depth pitching that they can maximize in multi-inning roles. The combination of Paddack, DeSclafani, and Varland will eat up most of the innings available out of Minnesota’s starting rotation’s third, fourth, and fifth spots. While this triumvirate deserves the opportunity, the Twins might be wise to maximize their abilities in shorter outings.