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Twins' rotation logjam to make for ST buzz

@dohyoungpark
February 10, 2020

MINNEAPOLIS -- Randy Dobnak watched all the offseason fuss on social media with some amusement. All eyes were on the club's starting rotation after the Twins were quickly ousted from the American League Division Series in a three-game sweep by the Yankees, never mind that the younger arms that surfaced

MINNEAPOLIS -- Randy Dobnak watched all the offseason fuss on social media with some amusement.

All eyes were on the club's starting rotation after the Twins were quickly ousted from the American League Division Series in a three-game sweep by the Yankees, never mind that the younger arms that surfaced in the big leagues -- primarily Dobnak and Devin Smeltzer -- pitched effectively for the Twins in high-pressure situations down the stretch and in the playoffs.

"I don't really let that stuff bother me," Dobnak said. "I think it's kind of funny. We can't really control it, so I don't let that stuff get to me."

Regardless, in an effort to take full advantage of their window of contention, the Twins first aimed high for a top-of-the-rotation starter in free agency before ultimately pivoting to a signing of third baseman Josh Donaldson alongside a large group of more experienced veteran starters to provide them a variety of depth options from which to consolidate a possible playoff rotation down the stretch.

At first, it looked as though there would still be extensive opportunities for Dobnak, Smeltzer and Lewis Thorpe to prove themselves early in the season due to Rich Hill's offseason surgery and Michael Pineda's suspension. But with Homer Bailey and Kenta Maeda set to fill rotation spots and non-roster invitee Jhoulys Chacín also in the fold, that trio of rookies faces a more uphill battle for Major League playing time this Spring Training in what is expected to be a free-for-all competition for only one vacancy in the Opening Day starting rotation.

"I understand I'm a young guy and I'm a rookie and [fans] want the big-name veterans who have a lot of experience under their belt," Smeltzer said. "But like I said, I'm a believer in myself and I'm my biggest fan. ... I think I belong [in the Majors]. It's their decision in the end, but my job is to make that decision easy for them."

Dobnak came out of nowhere (more specifically, the exurbs of Detroit) in the past two seasons, and posted a 1.59 ERA in 28 1/3 innings last season to earn the start in Game 2 of the ALDS at Yankee Stadium. Smeltzer pitched to a 3.86 ERA in 49 frames and brought his best against the most formidable opponents -- including a scoreless extended playoff appearance against the Yankees. Thorpe didn't have immediate success in the Majors, but MLB Pipeline's No. 11 prospect in the organization boasts the best repertoire of the bunch.

Pineda is due back in mid-May, and Hill could be back on a Major League mound as soon as early June. Even so, all three of those rookies -- along with Sean Poppen -- should find themselves pitching meaningful big league innings in some capacity. And regardless of who "wins" the competition in the spring, there's obviously still some flexibility to be had based on matchups and workload control.

"Let's say that all three throw well," pitching coach Wes Johnson said. "Obviously, with the coverage last year and so forth with [manager] Rocco [Baldelli], matchups are big. Smeltzer has thrown the ball really well, but if Dobnak and Thorpe are the better matchups, they're going to go this series and Smeltzer is going to have to go make a start in Triple-A. That scenario is real."

Johnson hopes to see some additional velocity out of Smeltzer this season after the slim left-hander put on weight and made some minor mechanical tweaks to his delivery.

"Just staying connected to the ground a little bit more," Smeltzer said. "My back leg was coming up a little early, and I'm getting my hip hinge to work a little bit better. Little things that probably won't be too much of a difference to the live eye, but [they're] little things that make a big difference."

Meanwhile, Dobnak has been working on his offspeed pitches to complement a hard, one-seam sinker. He's worked a bit on his slider release because his delivery naturally lends itself to pronation of the arm (creating sinker-like motion) as opposed to the supination needed for a slider. He's also hoping to better differentiate the spin between his sinker and changeup to make the latter dive more and miss bats more effectively.

As for Thorpe, his stuff is less of a question than his ability to develop and settle into a Major League routine and better situationally use his pitches.

"From Lewis' standpoint, now we've really seen him, and we've got some big league data on his stuff," Johnson said. "So now, it's like, 'We're only going to do this to right-handers. We're only going to do this to left-handers. We're going to do this to both sides.' And it's him just getting used to that, because his stuff is so good that he can do almost anything any time."

Thanks to the Twins' flurry of offseason moves, there really isn't much else that remains to be decided on the 26-man roster this spring, barring injury, of course. At some point, the Twins will need to decide whether Jake Cave, LaMonte Wade Jr or Willians Astudillo will be the 26th man on the roster, and who might win the likely competition between Fernando Romero and Cody Stashak for the final spot in the bullpen.

But those are lower-leverage battles in position groupings of immediate strength. The depth and upside among starters should have a much more significant impact on this team in 2020 and beyond -- and a first look at how the rookies might fit in is an important part of that.

"[Twins executive vice president] Derek [Falvey] and Rocco have put a lot of trust in us, and it shows," Thorpe said. "We're all excited. We're eager to get out there and start in Spring Training once we get down there."

Do-Hyoung Park covers the Twins for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark and on Instagram at dohyoung.park.