How will Twins form pitching staff in '22?

September 4th, 2021

The Twins only needed to fill two spots in their starting rotation last offseason -- and the decisive struggles of free-agent acquisitions and played no insignificant role in the overall trajectory of Minnesota's disappointing 2021 season.

Now, Derek Falvey, Thad Levine, Wes Johnson, Pete Maki and the Twins' coaching staff face an even tougher task: Without any pitchers slated to return from this year's Opening Day rotation due to 's recent Tommy John surgery, the Twins will need to assemble a considerably younger, less-experienced starting five for 2022 if they will hope to make this season's struggles a one-year blip.

Since the July 30 Trade Deadline, the Twins' season has been devoted in large part to figuring out which of the young arms currently on the roster could be viable pieces on the next winning Minnesota team, with the present rotation cobbled together between prospects with various degrees of polish, converted reliever and veteran journeyman .

In an added challenge, a few of the top pitching prospects that might have gotten a look this season have been injured, further limiting the Twins' ability to answer this question: Is there the basis for a successful 2022 Opening Day starting rotation on this roster?

"We know that’s an area we’re going to need to spend some time and fill out, both in the starting rotation and in the bullpen," Falvey said. "We’ve had this in the paste, in terms of needing to fill a number of slots. So that’s never been something that we haven’t had to have a conversation about."

Let's take a look at where that might start.

Likely in the rotation: ,
Ober likely doesn't have top-of-rotation upside, but the 6-foot-9 right-hander has turned heads by upping his fastball from the high 80s as a Minor Leaguer to an average of 92.3 mph in the big leagues thanks to some mechanical adjustments, and he's taken advantage of a harder slider for a 1.61 ERA over his last four starts and a 3.98 ERA overall as a rookie.

Ober didn't even pitch in Major League Spring Training, but he's made the most of this opportunity to likely earn himself a spot in the 2022 rotation. The only challenge will be with his workload, as he entered this season with a career high of 78 2/3 innings and a history of arm issues, and he'll likely finish this season somewhere in the range of 110 innings.

"We feel good about some of the group we have," Falvey said. "Bailey Ober has really established himself. I think a month ago, we wouldn’t have been able to say that. Hopefully, a month from now, we can say more about some of our young guys on this team."

Unless Ryan completely blows up in his first look with the Twins this September, he could be a solid bet to open next season in the rotation, too, considering he was seen as mostly Major League-ready when he arrived in the organization in the Nelson Cruz trade and posted strong numbers throughout the Minors, including in Triple-A, before he was promoted as the No. 6 prospect in the organization.

Could compete for spots: , ,
Neither Jax nor Strotman has huge upside, but Jax has worked on adding velocity to his fastball and adapting himself into more of a fastball-slider pitcher, which has led to flashes of success at the MLB level -- though inconsistent for now. Strotman hasn't had the best results in the Minors this season (4.80 ERA, 1.52 WHIP in Triple-A) but continues to regain his stuff following 2018 Tommy John surgery and is ranked No. 17 in the organization.

There aren't significant track records to be spoken for here, and the uncertainty around Jax's stuff and Strotman's recovery prevent them from being in the previous category, but considering they're on the 40-man roster, both will surely get consideration as the Twins sort through their options next spring.

Dobnak has had a tough 2021, but he's signed for the long term, and the Twins have seen how his sinker can play when he's on his game, which has led to limited success at the big league level in the past.

Uncertainty due to injury: , , ,
Duran, the organization's No. 5 prospect, likely has the highest upside of anyone listed in this group, and it would have been a safe bet for him to have gotten a significant look at the big leagues this season had it not been for an elbow strain that shut him down in June after only five appearances for Triple-A St. Paul. Winder, ranked No. 9, would also likely have surfaced with the Twins but was sidelined in August with a shoulder issue.

Both Smeltzer and Thorpe have Major League experience but have essentially been non-factors this year due to injury -- and in Thorpe's case, he'll be out of Minor League options next season, meaning he'll need to break camp with the team or not at all.

"I would say you’re always disappointed when some players you’re hoping are going to be part of the Major League team here soon are stalled to some degree, for different reasons," Falvey said. "Whether it’s performance reasons or health reasons. And the guys you just mentioned, in their cases it’s been health reasons. So that’s been disappointing."

There's certainly talent and some upside among this group, but those with lesser question marks -- Ober, Ryan and Dobnak -- don't carry top-of-rotation upside, making for a group that has more possible quality depth than ace potential. The problem is that the injury to Duran in particular left the Twins in a tough spot, because having more clarity on his possible upside as part of the 2022 rotation would make it much easier for Minnesota to assess its needs.

It's not difficult to imagine some successful rotation emerging from a combination of these players -- especially when the likes of , and also graduate to the high Minors and big leagues -- and there will be options available on the free-agent and trade markets, with notable free agents set to include Kevin Gausman, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, James Paxton, Robbie Ray, Carlos Rodón, Max Scherzer, Marcus Stroman, Noah Syndergaard and Justin Verlander.

In any case, there's no real way to get around the uncertainty presented by this group, even if the Twins shore up their options with a handful of external additions. There's a wide range of outcomes at play here considering all of the youth -- but there also does appear to be a limited ceiling among the existing group, something the Twins will need to consider as they look to 2022 and beyond.