After lackluster finale, Varland is optioned to Triple-A

April 22nd, 2024

MINNEAPOLIS -- The problem with for much of this season had been that he was throwing too many hittable strikes in two-strike counts.

The problem on Sunday was that he was no longer throwing strikes at all.

The slumping Twins are now losers of six of their last seven after dropping a 6-1 series finale to the Tigers at Target Field, already sinking them to 7-13 and an eight-game deficit in the American League Central. As part of that, the leeway ran out for a struggling Varland, who looked about as far from himself as ever in another tough start and was optioned to Triple-A St. Paul on Monday.

“There is urgency here,” Baldelli said. “I mean, we can’t play like this, pitch and play like this, and think things are just going to be fine. And our guys know it’s not just going to be fine. We’re going to have to do things. We’re going to have to be open to making roster moves and finding new ways to use players and figure some things out.”

The Twins do have Simeon Woods Richardson ready to step into a rotation spot, coming off a stellar six innings in a spot start in an April 13 doubleheader in Detroit. Three of Woods Richardson’s four Triple-A starts have been solid, and, at this point, Minnesota simply needs more consistent results than what Varland has given in his opportunity to start.

“I mean it’s everything I asked for, I trained for this offseason and going into camp,” Varland said. “Had the opportunity right in front of me, and, I mean, it’s just not ideal how it’s been going.”

Looking at the quality of the actual pitches Varland has been using this season -- which have largely been up from last year -- the recipe appears to be there for him to have success, but the Twins might not be able to afford to wait for him to figure it out up here, as they keep digging a deeper and deeper hole in the absence of Royce Lewis and Carlos Correa.

Sunday brought no signs of Varland getting any closer -- and, in many ways, it was a version the Twins hadn’t even seen before.

Even before the option, he certainly seemed to be feeling the concern from this slow start that has seen him allow 17 earned runs in 16 2/3 innings this season, for a 9.18 ERA in four starts.

“Yeah, absolutely,” Varland said. “It’s pretty easy to overthink. I try not to, but I think it’s human.”

Typically a strike-throwing machine, Varland instead fell behind in the count against 13 of the 15 hitters he faced while issuing four walks -- matching a career high -- and a hit-by-pitch, failing to complete the third inning. He was chased by a two-run blast from Buddy Kennedy on one of the pitches Varland got into the zone that ended up middle-middle.

Varland threw just 35 of his 74 pitches for strikes, a career-low 47% that was well lower than his previous career-low strike percentage of 58% -- which came in his 2024 season debut against the Brewers.

“With everything that had been going on early in the year, I don’t think it was a hard decision right now,” Baldelli said. “I actually think it was the right decision and that was clear for him and for us. It gives him an opportunity to focus on some things and get better without having to only worry about the results of what he’s doing.”

At least in the short-term, the Twins could use some relief help before Varland’s next rotation slot comes up, especially with the equally concerning Chris Paddack (8.36 ERA) set to start Monday’s series opener against the White Sox. With that in mind, they added Ronny Henriquez back to the roster as a length option.

Beyond that, the depth is already growing thin behind Woods Richardson. Minnesota hoped to count on Varland this season as part of that -- but, instead, due to the Anthony DeSclafani injury and Varland’s struggles, they might already have exhausted all of it.

Behind Woods Richardson, there’s perhaps Randy Dobnak if the Twins don’t deem No. 5 prospect David Festa ready -- and Varland finding an answer is important for Minnesota to not have to dig too much deeper into that uncertain depth.

“I work hard every week,” Varland said. “I do all the right things and then to go out there and have an outing like this, it’s frustrating.”