Twins turn to rookie Ryan for Opening Day assignment

April 6th, 2022

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Any path to success for the 2022 Minnesota Twins will involve a heavy reliance on their young group of starting pitchers.

So why not start from Day 1?

Twins manager Rocco Baldelli announced Thursday that rookie right-hander Joe Ryan will make his first career Opening Day start on Friday against the Mariners at Target Field, the most emphatic indication yet that for this Minnesota team and pitching staff, the future is now.

"He's absolutely earned the opportunity to go out there in the first game of the season for us, pitch Opening Day," Baldelli said. "It's still something that is important to everyone in the clubhouse. I know every pitcher may have their own opinions on this particular honor, but I think most guys and most people involved in the game know that it is a special thing."

From trade acquisition and September callup in 2021 to Opening Day starter in '22, Ryan's rise to the top of Minnesota's rotation is nearly unprecedented in recent baseball history.

He will become the third pitcher in the Expansion Era (since 1961) to make an Opening Day start within his first six career games, joining José Guzman of the '86 Rangers and Steve Busby of the '73 Royals. Ryan will also be the first rookie to start Opening Day for the Twins since Tom Hall in '69.

"There’s some great cars from 1969," Ryan said. "That was the first thing that came to mind."

Considering all that, what was the extent of Ryan's surprise when he got the news on Wednesday?

"We hugged," Baldelli said simply.

If anyone could make a big enough impression within five career starts to convince his team that he's worthy of this honor, it's Ryan, who was nearly untouchable for large swaths of his first taste of big league ball last season. His career numbers -- a 4.05 ERA, 30 strikeouts and five walks in 26 2/3 innings -- are ballooned by one bad outing against Detroit to finish off his season.

Four of the five frames in Ryan's debut against the Cubs were flawless, with one bad inning nestled in between. In his second career start, he carried a perfect game into the seventh inning and notched his first MLB win with seven frames of one-hit ball. Two starts after that, he struck out seven in a row to finish off his outing against the Cubs, ending up with a career-high 11.

"I think the big leagues is a little bit different than other levels, so there’s probably going to be more pressure in certain situations," Ryan said. "But at the end of the day, I think last year I just learned it’s still the same game. There’s great hitters up there. Don’t make mistakes. Execute your pitches and it’s still baseball. I’m there for a reason, too."

Ryan has faced 19 batters this spring. Only four of them have reached base, and none have scored. Six have struck out.

"He's pitched well from the first day I've ever seen him pitch, and came into camp in a really good spot, put himself in a good position, and this is the way things fell for him," Baldelli said. "The reason things fall like this is because the player did such a great job getting ready to go, and he's continued to go out there and pitch well in all types of outings all spring long."

And though there are three others in the Twins' rotation with Opening Day experience -- Sonny Gray with three, Chris Archer with four and Dylan Bundy with two -- Ryan is the one who's stretched out, prepared, lined up and ready to go.

That likely proved a consideration as the Twins navigated their shortened ramp-up period this spring, particularly with Gray, who appeared to be Minnesota's presumptive Opening Day starter when he was acquired in a March 13 trade with the Reds but has tracked slightly behind his teammates in his buildup. Gray has made only one start this spring and has yet to pitch in a Major League game.

"Of course [Gray] was a consideration and part of this discussion," Baldelli said. "But the way that things have all played out and who was set up to do this, who was throwing the ball really well, who has proven himself to us in a lot of ways, the answer to that this year for us was Joe."

Don't think of it as David vs. Goliath when the rookie (ranked No. 4 among the Twins' Top 30 Prospects by MLB Pipeline, by the way) matches up against reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray in a week. Ryan has been cool and unflappable since his arrival to the Twins in the trade that sent Nelson Cruz to Tampa Bay last July, and he has experience on the international stage as the ace of Team USA at the most recent Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The Twins wouldn't be giving him this honor if they didn't think he was ready.

"The Olympics really conditioned me for that," Ryan said. "That was a lot more stressful than anything I've experienced here with leaving, being somewhere else, going across the world and then pitching in a different country against teams that we have no data on. ... That was much more stressful for me than pitching in the big leagues. These guys make it so easy."

"It's something we think he can handle as a human being," Baldelli said. "It is a big deal. It is an honor to go out there. But it's an honor that he's earned and an honor that he can absolutely handle in everybody's opinion over here."