A six-man rotation? Twins 'open to conversation'

March 11th, 2023

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When the Twins acquired Pablo López in a trade with the Marlins on Jan. 20, that gave them six starting pitchers with multi-year track records of Major League success, knowing that they’d undoubtedly have to lean on that depth throughout the season.

At the time, they indicated that they still preferred to open camp with a five-man rotation, likely leaving Bailey Ober as the odd man out if everyone remained healthy. But with three weeks to go until Opening Day, president of baseball operations Derek Falvey noted on Saturday that the Twins have grown more open to the possibility of breaking camp with a six-man rotation.

“That wasn’t our plan as we entered camp,” Falvey said. “It still, I wouldn’t say, is our plan, but there’s at least a conversation we’ve been having internally about how that could work and what it would mean for the bullpen, how would we navigate that. Some of it will be health-dependent, but we’re open to the conversation maybe more now than I was a month ago.”

Much can change before Minnesota opens its regular season in Kansas City on March 30, and the Twins could still determine for roster fit reasons that it wouldn’t make sense for them to use six starters. And considering the health questions around several of their rotation options entering camp, it’s not tough to see why the Twins had planned for a normal five-man rotation as their baseline expectation for Opening Day.

But stronger-than-expected health and performance across the board could now dictate otherwise.

“I think that now that you’re seeing more of them perform the way they are, some of these guys, velos are up, pitch qualities are up, things like that,” Falvey said. “So we feel like if that’s the case, if [six] can be an advantage for us at the outset of the season, we’re going to consider it. It wasn’t something we entered camp thinking was a priority.”

Tyler Mahle entered the spring with questions regarding his health after unresolved elbow soreness limited him to two healthy starts for the Twins last season. Even after the Red Sox tagged him for three runs (two earned) in 2 1/3 innings on Saturday, his velocity and stuff have held up as well as the Twins could have hoped.

The Twins also entered camp needing to see how Kenta Maeda’s arm would bounce back in his first consistent action since his Tommy John surgery at the end of the 2021 season -- and that has also gone well.

Sonny Gray’s stuff is playing up. Joe Ryan’s stuff is also playing up. And just as significantly, Ober has done everything in his power to make it tougher for the Twins to leave him out of their rotation picture. Offseason work to polish his pitches and fully build up his extension following his groin issues in 2022 also has his stuff ticking up, from an average fastball velocity of 91.5 mph last season to 93.2 mph and 93.0 mph in his first two starts this spring.

Ober’s upped fastball and more lateral slider have helped him pitch three shutout innings of no-hit ball with five strikeouts this spring -- and though he hasn’t necessarily been seeking results in his push for the roster, he has looked every bit like he belongs in the Twins’ rotation.

"I wouldn't say that's been my main focus, but I'm trying to do what I know I can do and be the best I can be out there,” Ober said. “I feel like I'm pretty locked in right now. I had a good offseason, refined some pitches. I feel really strong right now. I feel healthy.”

The Twins will now need to make sure that López comes back healthy and on schedule following the World Baseball Classic, and determine if and how their bullpen picture could accommodate that change. They’ll also need to hope for continued health from the existing group.

But if a six-man rotation were to remain possible, the Twins are cognizant of the benefit in how that could moderate some of their starters’ workload at the beginning of the season and keep them more effective toward the end of the year, when they hope to be playing meaningful games.

“Keep our fingers crossed,” Falvey said. “If we have six, seven, eight starters fully healthy, I’ll feel awesome at the end of camp. Let’s just hope that happens.”