On outside looking in, Varland stretched out as starter again

February 15th, 2024

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Nestled in one corner of the Hammond Stadium clubhouse, 's locker is visible from where is settled down the wall of lockers, toward one of the other corners -- and Ober’s experience from last season does help settle Varland’s mind a bit, he says.

Last year, Ober was on the outside of the rotation picture looking in due to an excess of healthy starters on the roster, and he ended up starting the season in Triple-A. After that, Ober started 26 games in the Majors and threw a career-high 144 1/3 innings.

“Yeah, that is true,” Varland said. “That helps a lot.”

It mirrors the situation in which Varland found himself as spring camp began this year, with the first pitcher-catcher workouts at Hammond Stadium on Wednesday. There are five healthy starting pitchers on the roster: Opening Day starter , , Ober, and, most recently, .

Barring injury, that leaves Varland as the sixth in a group with five slots, since he has remaining Minor League options and can thus be stashed in Triple-A if needed. Though he thrived as a reliever for the Twins last September and into the postseason, Varland is being stretched out as a starter again this spring and says he’s ready for whatever role the Twins need.

Varland is aware of the situation and knows where he likely figures into the picture, just as he did when he got demoted to the Minors last season following his stint with the Twins. All he can do is compete for the job and accept the reality.

“I could kind of smell Kenta Maeda coming back,” Varland said. “It was kind of expected and that goes along with any kind of move that happens. You kind of assume and expect stuff. … It's a business and that's just how it works.”

As the Twins saw last year, rotation depth was key -- and that’s why it was important for them to bring in DeSclafani as part of the Jorge Polanco trade, and why it’s significant that the right-hander who was injured for much of the past two seasons appears to be fully healthy to start camp after he was sidelined by a right elbow flexor strain at the end of last season.

DeSclafani was among the first to throw his bullpen session as part of organized workouts, and he hopes that a platelet-rich plasma injection in his elbow, plenty of rest and a normal offseason workup that started in October will have him healthy and effective for the first time since 2021, when he had a 3.17 ERA in 167 2/3 innings for the Giants before being sidelined by ankle and elbow issues in the following years.

“Just from health reasons, everything was starting to be a grind and it kind of snowballed on me,” DeSclafani said. “I’m feeling really good this year. Hopefully, I can capture ‘21 and the beginning of last year and just make it a full season and help this team.”

Injuries are an unfortunate reality of any season, and even without considering DeSclafani’s recent history and the fact that Paddack is coming off a second Tommy John surgery, it’s essentially a given that Varland -- and likely someone beyond him -- will be called upon for meaningful innings at various points this season.

While Varland’s stuff played up considerably out of the bullpen, it seems that the Twins are going to keep him stretched out, and it’s not tough to see why. The projection system ZiPS has Varland as the club’s fourth-best starter behind López, Ryan and Ober, and Steamer has Varland in the team’s top five, with each system projecting him for ERAs of 4.20 and 4.11, respectively.

“Louie will be stretched out, one way or the other,” manager Rocco Baldelli said.

In another sign that the Twins could keep Varland away from the bullpen for now, they’ve loaded up on relief depth, already seemingly without room for the likes of Jorge Alcala or Kody Funderburk among the Major League bullpen group they’ve assembled.

So, Varland is doing his best to make himself more appealing as a starter. Due to last year’s inconsistency in the Majors, he worked to add a two-seamer that can run in on right-handed hitters, who adjusted to him in particular by sitting on pitches away. He also has a slider with more depth.

Perhaps a spot will open by Opening Day; perhaps not. But whatever the situation, Varland is building on the lessons of 2023.