Top pitching prospect Festa ready for MLB debut

June 27th, 2024

PHOENIX -- The consensus among the Twins’ young players who have spent time in the Triple-A St. Paul clubhouse this season is that is a largely quiet, meticulous guy who takes his work very seriously.

Then, he steps on the mound -- and his stuff roars.

“When I saw him, it was a guaranteed 10 punchouts,” Austin Martin said.

“He's got strikeout stuff,” Royce Lewis said. “Every time I've seen him pitch, he's always either striking them out or making them look uncomfortable some other way.”

The time for such secondhand tales is now in the past; Twins fans will now get to see for themselves. Festa, the organization’s top pitching prospect and baseball’s No. 99 overall prospect, will make his Major League debut as Minnesota’s starting pitcher in Thursday’s series finale against the D-backs at Chase Field.

Ranked No. 5 in the organization, Festa will perhaps become the most anticipated Twins pitching prospect to debut since José Berríos in 2016. Festa will be the first top-100 pitcher to debut for the club since Brusdar Graterol in ‘19 -- and Graterol did so as a bullpen member but never started a game for Minnesota.

“He’s been fulfilling his obligations by having good stuff, by being in the strike zone a good amount, by missing a bunch of bats,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He’s throwing the ball how we want him to, and he’s ready for this. He’s been preparing for this for a long time. We think he’s at the top of his game and he’s ready to go.”

Festa will slot into the rotation spot vacated by Chris Paddack, who could be out for weeks with right arm fatigue, which could give Festa a chance to make three or four starts in the Majors -- barring any other changes.

And Festa’s onetime teammates are right: He can rack up strikeouts with the best of them.

With 87 strikeouts and a 3.77 ERA in 59 2/3 innings with Triple-A St. Paul this season, Festa’s 35.1% strikeout rate ranks seventh among all affiliated Minor Leaguers with at least 50 innings pitched. His 57 strikeouts since the start of May are second-most among all Triple-A pitchers.

“I'm very excited to see him pitch,” Lewis said. “I don't know -- hopefully, he doesn't have a pitch count or anything on him, because I'd like to see him do his thing, just like a Paul Skenes.”

For Festa to be successful, he’ll need to throw strikes -- and sometimes that holds him back. Along with those 87 strikeouts, he has 24 walks in Triple-A for a 9.7% rate that isn’t necessarily excessive, but could still stand to improve. And, to his credit, that has gotten better, as he’s issued one walk while striking out 22 across his last three outings for the Saints.

A onetime 13th-round Draft selection out of Seton Hall in 2021, Festa is the latest in the quickly growing cohort of mid- to late-round pitchers to have been developed far beyond their draft status by the Twins’ player development apparatus. (Bailey Ober and Louie Varland are the most recent examples, along with Zebby Matthews and C.J. Culpepper further down the pipeline.)

The most apparent thing when Festa is on the mound is how tall and lanky he is, listed at 6-foot-6 and 185 pounds, with limbs and levers flying all over the place as he winds up and delivers. He focused his offseason around functional lifting and strengthening to continue to build up the body, strength and endurance that have often been his limiting factor.

“I know it was a big emphasis for him,” said Twins player development director Drew MacPhail during Spring Training. “We sat down with him at the beginning of the offseason, and to his credit, he fully bought in. I think we felt like he's in the best position, just physically, this season, kind of going into the year that he's ever been. That's really exciting.”

But the fastball has ticked up to a 95.2 mph average this season, topping out at 98.7 mph (though there is a tracked pitch at 101.1 mph that perhaps leaves reason for skepticism).

But that’s not the pitch he leans on. Festa throws his slider most often among his entire arsenal. That’s for good reason because his offspeed pitches generate incredible whiff rates -- 44.8% on the slider, and 41.2% on his changeup -- that put him in the best position to succeed.

And now, it’s time to watch all that play at the big league level.