How will Twins pitching look the rest of '21?

August 8th, 2021

HOUSTON -- This is not the pitching staff that manager Rocco Baldelli and pitching coach Wes Johnson thought they'd have at their disposal at the start of the season -- and frankly, it's not particularly close to it.

Three-fifths of the Opening Day starting rotation is gone, with José Berríos having been dealt to Toronto, J.A. Happ now in St. Louis and Matt Shoemaker gone to the Giants' organization following his release. It's no simpler in the bullpen, with Randy Dobnak, Cody Stashak and Taylor Rogers all hurt and Hansel Robles traded to Boston.

As the Twins take these final two months to evaluate several depth arms on their roster, all of those vacancies have been filled by a mixture of rookies looking to prove themselves and veterans searching for a second wind in their big league careers.

"You rarely get opportunities like this," Baldelli said. "They don’t just pop up all the time, and they don’t grow on trees. When you get the opportunities, you try to put yourself in position by preparing well and just kind of giving it everything you’ve got."

With that in mind, let's clarify the new look of this Twins pitching staff, where it stands now following the Trade Deadline and how things could still change before the end of this season.

The starting rotation

Alongside Kenta Maeda and Michael Pineda, the three vacancies left by the departures of Berríos, Happ and Shoemaker have been filled for now by rookies Bailey Ober, Griffin Jax and Charlie Barnes, who are all hoping to take advantage of a rare opportunity to consistently pitch in the big leagues and put themselves into Minnesota's depth starter pool moving forward.

Dobnak, Lewis Thorpe and Devin Smeltzer all pushed themselves into that mix two years ago, and this situation is even better for Ober, Jax and Barnes now that the Twins are no longer in contention, meaning they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by giving their young arms the chance to settle into a true five-day starting rhythm and see how their stuff plays in a more extended look up in the big leagues.

Ober, 26, has already made 12 starts, as he's held down a rotation slot for the Twins since June, when Shoemaker was designated for assignment. Jax, 26, and Barnes, 25, are more recent arrivals, afforded actual rotation slots by the Twins' moves at the Trade Deadline.

How could this change?

Baldelli indicated that the Twins are still carefully monitoring Ober's workload and haven't ruled out a shutdown at some point this season, since the right-hander didn't pitch in 2020 and only threw 78 2/3 innings -- his career-high -- in the Minors in '19 due to arm injuries. The Twins have every reason to be cautious with Ober, considering the state of their season and their need for the big right-hander to be healthy in 2022.

Even without Ober in the mix, it's likely that there will be some change coming to this group in the near future, as Dobnak (right middle finger sprain) is expected to throw a light bullpen session on Monday before he's eligible for activation from the 60-day IL later in the month. And don't forget about Lewis Thorpe, who has now recovered from his right shoulder strain and will need a look, since he's out of Minor League options beyond this season.

Even beyond those two obvious candidates, the Twins also have several top prospects who could see time in the big leagues this season, starting with right-hander Joe Ryan, ranked No. 8 in the organization, and the headliner in the return from Tampa Bay in the Nelson Cruz trade. The other half of that haul, right-hander Drew Strotman (No. 15), has already made two starts for Triple-A St. Paul and is already on the 40-man roster.

Josh Winder (No. 14) could have been in line for a possible callup to the big club in September, but he was recently shut down for 2-3 weeks with a right shoulder impingement and will first need to recover. And Jhoan Duran (No. 5) would almost certainly have been up in the big leagues this year had elbow troubles not sidelined him since late June.

The bullpen

With Stashak, Dobnak, Rogers and Robles off the roster for now, the Twins have scraped together innings from a combination of trade acquisition John Gant, waiver wire pickup Beau Burrows and former Minor League free agents Danny Coulombe and Juan Minaya.

That has also decimated the Twins' planned high-leverage bullpen core, meaning the club will likely lean heavily on Alex Colomé in the ninth inning, while Tyler Duffey will remain in his leverage roles and Jorge Alcala has already started his long-awaited pressure test in a possible setup role.

"I'm just really grateful they are giving me the opportunity to come out and compete in the seventh, eighth innings," Alcala said. "And the trust of the coaching staff and the manager to come out and do my job."

As for the others, Gant had all sorts of control issues with St. Louis (56 strikeouts and 56 walks in 76 1/3 innings) but has looked promising in his first look with the Twins, with seven strikeouts and only one walk through 4 2/3 frames. Coulombe has also been a pleasant surprise with a 2.95 ERA, 21 strikeouts and three walks in 18 1/3 innings to move up into a moderate-leverage role alongside Gant and Caleb Thielbar.

Some combination of Burrows and Minaya appears to be the Twins' lower-leverage option for now, though the situation remains largely fluid.

How could this change?

This could be more volatile moving forward, with a mixture of under-the-radar waiver wire picks and prospects pushing for big league looks later in August and into September. Gant should be safe, considering his track record and remaining season of club control, while Coulombe has also likely earned a longer look at this level.

Luke Farrell also pitched well in his first look with the Twins, and he's on his path to return, starting with a light bullpen session on Monday as part of his recovery from a right oblique strain. Derek Law also remains sidelined with an injury.

Beyond that, there could still be some change, with the Twins sneaking in waiver wire acquisitions of right-handers Edgar García (from Cincinnati) and Ralph Garza Jr. (from Houston), giving them the advantage of already being on the 40-man roster.

Keep an eye, too, on left-hander Jovani Moran in Triple-A St. Paul, a 24-year-old who has posted sparkling numbers across Double-A Wichita and Triple-A this season, with an eye-popping 21 strikeouts and four walks in only 12 1/3 innings. He and Cuban righty Yennier Cano aren't on the 40-man roster but moved to the cusp of the Majors earlier this year following fast starts in Double-A.