The Twins had four veteran starters ready to open 2018 in Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson, Jose Berrios and Lance Lynn. They also remained invested financially in Phil Hughes, and wanted to give him another shot at regaining the ability to retire big-league hitters.
Fernando Romero was the best starting prospect in the organization, and manager Paul Molitor and his staff were impressed with what they saw from the pitcher out of Class AA. That also was true of everyone watching him pitch in Florida exhibitions.
Eight innings, no hits, one walk, eight strikeouts.
He was sent to minor league camp March 14. The Twins had to get him out of big-league camp before it became an issue as to whether he should open the season in Minnesota.
Romero was a righthander with a fastball in the high 90s, a wipeout slider and a determination to add a newfound changeup under the guidance of Fernando Rodney, the new Twins closer and a master of that pitch.
“First-pitch strikes,” Romero said after his last exhibition outing. “It felt so good. When you do that, you can do what you want with hitters.”
Hughes entered the rotation in late April, made two ineffective starts, and then Romero was called up from Rochester. He gave up one run total in his first three starts, with 11 hits, nine walks and 20 strikeouts in 16⅔ innings.
Fifteen months later, Romero has a new delivery on Twins’ advice and is among the platoon of pitchers added to the expanded September roster.
Romero was ineffective in the eight starts he made for the 2018 Twins after those first three, and that was enough to transform another future staple of the rotation into another arm in the bullpen.
“You said Fernando?” Taylor Rogers said. “They told him before spring training that as a reliever, he had a good chance to be with the Twins, and as a starter, he would be in Triple-A.
“What would you want to do?”
As it turned out, Romero made the transition to reliever, pitched poorly this spring, and spent most of the season with Class AAA Rochester anyway.
Rogers was another minor leaguer with an apparently strong future as a big-league starter back in 2015. Now, he is a lefthander with 250 appearances with the Twins, all as a reliever and this season as a standout closer.
Right down the row of cubicles from Rogers in the Twins clubhouse were Trevor May and Tyler Duffey, two more past starters with important roles in a bullpen that had been much-improved until a four-run implosion in the 11th inning that gave Cleveland a had-to-have-it, 6-2 victory on Friday.
Earlier, this question was broached to Rogers: “If all the top starting prospects are turned into relievers early in their careers, where are the starters going to be found?”
Rogers said: “You only get five starters. Once they have those, you’re either a reliever or in the minors.
“They told me the same thing back in 2016 that they told Fernando this year: ‘You’re going to the big leagues, but you’re going to pitch out of the bullpen. Is that OK?’
“Of course, it’s OK. That’s why all of us play baseball — to make it to the big leagues.”
Duffey actually broke in a starter with the Twins in 2015, a late-season hero of the underdog attempt to gain a wild-card berth in the AL. His ERA that season was 3.10, and then it was 6.43 in 26 starts in 2010, and it was off to the bullpen.
He’s bounced back-and-forth between Rochester and Minnesota, but now has become a reliable reliever in this second half of a turnaround season.
Asked where the starters of the future are to be found, Duffey smiled and said: “That’s a good question. I don’t know where the next Verlander is going to come from.”
Note: The lone good news from Friday’s bullpen troubles was that hard-throwing newcomer Brusdar Graterol didn’t retire a batter in the 11th, providing hope that he will be the rare Twins starter of the future that doesn’t wind up in the bullpen.