Leading up to the start of Spring Training, the Around the Horn series will examine each of the Twins' positional groupings heading into the 2019 season. This first installment examines the starting rotation.MINNEAPOLIS -- The Twins' 2019 rotation certainly has the markings of a solid contender in the short term.
Leading up to the start of Spring Training, the Around the Horn series will examine each of the Twins' positional groupings heading into the 2019 season. This first installment examines the starting rotation.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Twins' 2019 rotation certainly has the markings of a solid contender in the short term. While only burgeoning ace Jose Berrios is under contract beyond this season among the established starters, Kyle Gibson and Jake Odorizzi provide solid, experienced depth, and Michael Pineda is a high-ceiling wild card who could rack up strikeouts if he can return to his pre-Tommy John surgery form.
Of course, that leaves the fifth rotation spot in question. With the Twins' roster built to contend this season, the club could lock down a veteran starter for depth and potentially bridge the gap to the 2020 rotation. Alternatively, it could give its many young starters at the highest levels of the Minor Leagues an extended look with an eye towards next season -- and beyond.
Berrios should anchor the top of the rotation after his continued progression during 2018, his age-24 season, when he eclipsed the 200-strikeout mark for the first time in his career and lowered his ERA for a second straight season to 3.84. He raised his strikeout rate to a career-best 9.5 K/9 and his walk rate (2.9 BB/9) was also the lowest of his career. According to Statcast™, he generated career-high whiff rates on his curveball (38.8 percent) and his changeup (30.4 percent) in 2018.
The 31-year-old Gibson had his long-awaited breakout campaign in 2018, when he started 32 games and struck out a career-high 179 batters in 196 2/3 innings, bumping his strikeout rate from 6.9 K/9 in 2017 to a career-best 8.2 K/9. Odorizzi, 28, also made 32 starts last season and he registered his highest strikeout rate since 2014 despite posting the highest full-season ERA of his career.
Pineda, though not technically new, was signed to a two-year contract prior to the 2018 season, but he will appear in a Twins uniform for the first time this season after completing his recovery from Tommy John surgery. The 29-year-old has an extensive injury history, but he has high strikeout potential when he's healthy -- leading the American League with a 10.6 K/9 strikeout rate in '16.
Pineda has also had strong control throughout his career, as he struck out five times as many hitters as he walked in his four seasons with the Yankees.
Which in-house candidates could compete for the fifth spot?
Adalberto Mejia has seemingly been on the brink of establishing himself at the Major League level for several seasons, and he got off to a strong start in 2018 with a 2.01 ERA in five appearances, including four starts, before he was sidelined for the rest of the season with a nerve issue in his elbow.
Fernando Romero could also be a strong candidate after making 11 starts in the Majors in 2018. He pitched at least five innings in eight of those starts and he also allowed three or fewer earned runs in eight starts. Though he could eventually be a candidate to pitch out of the bullpen, the Twins still feel he has the repertoire to start, and he should get the chance to do so.
Behind Mejia and Romero, several starters saw limited Major League action in 2018, including southpaw Stephen Gonsalves, ranked as the club's No. 5 prospect by MLB Pipeline, and righties Chase De Jong, Kohl Stewart (No. 28) and Zack Littell (No. 20). Stewart and Gonsalves struggled in traditional starting roles but pitched more effectively as long men in the opener strategy, while Littell saw more action in extended relief. The 25-year-old De Jong was also effective in four September starts.
No. 10 prospect Lewis Thorpe might still benefit from more time in Triple-A, but he has impressed at every level of the Minors, and he was added to the 40-man roster following the 2017 season. Thorpe had a 3.54 ERA in 26 games (25 starts) across two Minor League levels in 2018, including a 3.32 ERA in four starts for Rochester to close out the season.
Could the Twins employ an "opener"?
The Twins are open to the idea of creatively using their pitching if the need arises, and with manager Rocco Baldelli arriving from the Rays' think tank during the offseason, those discussions are likely to continue.
Under Paul Molitor last season, the Twins gave Gabriel Moya several appearances as the "opener," and at the Winter Meetings, chief baseball officer Derek Falvey indicated that there's a "decent chance" that Minnesota stretches out more starters than necessary because some may be able to shift to multiple-inning bullpen roles. Whether or not the Twins do acquire a fifth starter via trade or free agency, that sort of bullpen role could be a good way to give some of the developing starters valuable Major League experience.
What other starters are available in free agency?
Dallas Keuchel is the big fish left in the starter pond, but it doesn't seem likely that the Twins will target him unless he lowers his demands. With Derek Holland signing with the Giants on Monday, the most intriguing names remaining on the market include Giovany Gonzalez, Wade Miley and Clay Buchholz.
Gonzalez has been consistently effective throughout his 11-year Major League career, though he's lost some velocity and has seen his strikeout rate and walk rates creep in the wrong direction. At age 31, Miley had the best season of his career with the Brewers in 2018 after introducing the heavy use of a cutter to his arsenal. Buchholz has had his share of injury problems, but he has been quite effective at times when healthy, including a bounceback '18, when he was 7-2 with a 2.01 ERA (215 ERA+) in 16 starts.
Who else is in the pipeline? (MLB Pipeline rankings)
No. 3 Brusdar Graterol (age: 20, highest level: Class A Advanced)
No. 9 Blayne Enlow (age: 19, highest level: Class A)
No. 11 Jorge Alcala (age: 23, highest level: Double-A)
No. 23 Jhoan Duran (age: 21, highest level: Class A)
No. 30 Jordan Balazovic (age: 20, highest level: Class A)
Projected rotation (2018 stats)
Jose Berrios (12-11, 3.84 ERA, 192 1/3 IP, 3.8 WAR)
Kyle Gibson (10-13, 3.62 ERA, 196 2/3 IP, 3.9 WAR)
Michael Pineda (N/A)
Jake Odorizzi (7-10, 4.49 ERA, 164 1/3 IP, 1.5 WAR)
Adalberto Mejia (2-0, 2.01 ERA, 22 1/3 IP, 1.0 WAR)
Do-Hyoung Park covers the Twins for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark and on Instagram at dohyoung.park.