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Seth Stohs, Nick Nelson, Parker Hageman and John Bonnes

TwinsCentric: Who will round out the rotation?

The Twins have a firmly established trio of starters in place that they will build around. Barring injuries, you can bet that Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes and Kyle Gibson will all be in the rotation when Minnesota heads to Baltimore to open the season in April.

Behind them, things are unsettled.

After spending every recent offseason exhaustively searching all avenues for starting pitching help, Terry Ryan and the Twins have refreshingly been able to abstain this winter. Even with Mike Pelfrey departing and no significant additions coming aboard, there will be plenty of quality competition in-house for the final two spots.

In 2015, the Twins had nine different players make starts, and that was their lowest total in four years. Chances are, every pitcher listed below will get his chance at some point this year, so the composition of the group that goes north only matters so much.

In some ways, as we'll discuss, the club is actually incentivized not to carry their best talent from the very start of the regular season.

By all accounts, though, the decision-makers are keeping an open mind about those available rotation spots, which should lead to some heated competition in March. This is undoubtedly by design.

Let's take a look at the contenders that will be making their cases.

Why Tommy Milone Will Win A Job

With his low velocity and middling strikeout rates, Milone doesn't get a ton of love from the sabermetric crowd, but he has been a reliably solid back-of-the-rotation starter and there is value in that.

The Twins settled with Milone on a $4.5 million salary for this season, and that's not the kind of money you pay for a reliever who has almost no experience pitching out of the bullpen. Be assured, the team is heading into camp with designs on him as a starter, just as they did last spring when the job was his to lose in a competition that included Trevor May, Alex Meyer and Mike Pelfrey.

That is, no small part, because Milone is the lone left-hander in this entire picture.

It's not an overriding factor, and if he looks flat-out crummy in camp or is blatantly surpassed by others, I could see Milone heading to the bullpen. But he's as close to a lock as you'll find on this list.

Why Tyler Duffey Will Win A Job

He earned it. With the way Duffey responded after being called up to the majors last August, the Twins will be hard-pressed not to put him in the rotation. Following a rough outing in a brutal match-up at Toronto for his MLB debut, Duffey went 5-0 with a 2.25 ERA in his final nine starts, and Minnesota went 8-1 in those games.

During his introduction to the highest level, the right-hander checked all the boxes. He attacked the strike zone. He pitched deep into games. He missed bats and kept the ball in the park. Duffey deployed his spectacular curveball with deadly effectiveness and out-pitched all of his peers in the rotation.

There are question marks attached to the 25-year-old hurler, however. Ultimately, 10 starts is still a small sample size and Duffey still has only 17 total starts at Triple-A. As good as he was in the minors last year, his long-term track record isn't quite as impressive, especially when it comes to strikeouts.

And there is this: Duffey is essentially a two-pitch guy. He threw his fastball or curve 98 percent of the time as a rookie with the Twins. Some can make that work as a starter, but most don't. As Twins Daily community member gopherman23 recently pointed out, the righty's 39.8 percent usage rate with the hook was the highest in the majors since 2002.

Could the Twins send Duffey back to the minors to work on polishing a third pitch?

Why Ricky Nolasco Will Win A Job

The obvious (and perhaps unsatisfactory) answer is that he's being paid $12 million this year and next. Twins officials have made it pretty clear that decisions regarding Nolasco won't be dictated by the money he's owed, but you can bet he will be given every chance to earn it.

And he deserves that much. I realize that damn near every Twins fan is incredibly down on the veteran righty, understandably so, but the truth is that he has never had a sustained opportunity to show what he can do here while fully healthy. Both of his seasons in Minnesota have been marred by injury. Last year in limited duty he put up a 3.51 FIP and struck out 35 batters in 37 innings, so there is something to build on there.

Compared to others on this list, Nolasco simply has no case based on his accomplishments with this team. He has an uphill battle in that regard, but I do think that if he's sharp in spring training the Twins will be inclined to jump him ahead in line because he can't be sent to the minors and he offers little in the bullpen other than long relief.

And, yeah, they're paying him quite a bit of money to start games.

Why Jose Berrios Will Win A Job

He may very well be the most talented pitcher on this list, and the only one with true "ace" potential. Berrios obliterated the highest levels of the minors last year and was in position for a late-season call-up, though the Twins ultimately decided to pass.

There is almost zero question that he is ready to pitch in the majors. His supremacy over Triple-A hitters in July and August left little doubt. But by starting him back in Rochester and waiting even a few weeks to call him up, the Twins stand to push back his free agency clock and gain a full extra year of team control down the line. Given that Berrios will be 27 – the midst of his theoretical prime – in six years, that extra season could be extremely valuable.

Of course, this all becomes somewhat moot if the Twins lock him up with a contract extension at some point. And while there is a reasonable and logical argument against bringing him north regardless of how he performs, if he truly transcends the competition it's going to be a hard sell sending him back to a level that he has already mastered.

Berrios, and the decisions surrounding him, will easily be among the most compelling storylines to follow this spring.

Why Trevor May Will Win A Job

He is as qualified as anybody. May was a good prospect as a starting pitcher rising through the minors and broke through last year with a strong first-half performance in the Twins rotation before circumstances forced him to the bullpen.

Circumstances, unfortunately, continue to work against the young right-hander. His performance after shifting to relief was so impressive that it evidently convinced the Twins to bypass the relief market this offseason while viewing May as one of their core pieces at the back end of the bullpen.

That means May's chances of winning a starting job, or even being a legit contender for one, are low. It would likely take injuries to more than one other guy on this list for the Twins to rearrange their plans so dramatically. They simply need May in the late innings.

Others In The Mix: Taylor Rogers, Pat Dean, Alex Meyer

With the five pitchers above vying for two spots, there isn't much of an opening for these fringe outsiders.

Rogers and Dean were both added to the 40-man roster after impressive campaigns at Rochester last year, and they gain some extra points for being lefties. Meyer was ranked as one of the organization's best pitching prospects as recently as a year ago, but there have always been serious questions about his ability to remain a starter and his trainwreck 2015 season may have been the final straw pushing him to a reliever designation.

 

All in all, though, the Twins have more quality starting pitching depth in place than they've had in at least half a decade. They really need one or two guys to step up and take over at the front of the rotation, but it's hugely refreshing to see such a wide array of hurlers in the mix with no Mike Pelfrey or Kevin Correia types clogging things up.

More help is on the way, too, in the form of rising young arms like Stephen Gonsalves, Kohl Stewart and Tyler Jay.

 

TwinsCentric: Talking dollars and sense

As we close in on the month of February, the Twins have remained quiet on the Hot Stove front. In terms of spending, it has been one of the most conservative offseasons we have seen from this franchise in some time.

 

Byung Ho Park is the only addition that has really cost them anything. Outside of a few escalating contracts and arbitration raises, they haven't added payroll anywhere. With Torii Hunter and a couple others coming off the books, that leaves them slightly short of last year's Opening Day mark of $108 million, barring further moves.

 

Following a season in which the Twins finally turned the corner and set their long-awaited contention blueprint into motion, the lack of aggressiveness on the market this winter has left many fans scratching their heads. An article by Jack Moore for Baseball Prospectus this week discussing Minnesota's misapplied label as a "small market" rankled plenty of folks, as evidenced by the nine pages of discussion on the topic in our forums.

 

Personally, while I have been critical of the front office's timid approach at times in the past, I'm not too riled up by the sparsity of moves, for a couple of reasons.

 

For one thing, there was Park's posting fee. At $12.85 million, it was very large, in the contexts of both this organization's past and the Korean market standards. While you might not technically construe this as a payroll expense, for all intents and purposes it is. They spent many millions of dollars to add immediate talent to the major-league roster.

 

So if you prorate that money over the four years of Park's contract, the 2016 payroll figure jumps to about the exact same level it was at a year ago. That number ranked the Twins 18th in baseball last season, and while it might rank a bit lower this time around, it'll still be fairly close to the middle of the pack. It's not unreasonable for a club that falls on the lower end of the mid-market category in terms of revenue.

 

The other thing is that the Twins seem to be committing to a more youth-focused approach. While it's difficult to have absolute confidence in the present bullpen array, I'd much rather allow the younger internal options to take jobs and run with them, as opposed to seeing them blocked by mediocrities like Tim Stauffer. Last year, he came in and had just about the worst spring you could possibly imagine, but still made the club and received a relatively long leash, on the basis of his guaranteed contract and veteran status. No more of that.

 

But while we're on the subject, let's talk about Stauffer for a moment. Last offseason, he was Minnesota's most expensive bullpen addition, with his $2.2 million commitment ranking as the 23rd-largest given to a free agent relief pitcher by an MLB club (per MLB Trade Rumors).

 

There is a "you get what you pay for" dynamic in play here. Nearly every reliever who signed a bigger deal than Stauffer last offseason performed better than he did. Given that the Twins missed the playoffs by only a few games, and given that Stauffer performed miserably almost literally every time he took the mound, you could certainly argue that aiming a little higher with their veteran bullpen upgrade might have made a big difference.

 

But instead of aiming higher here in an offseason where the bullpen is an obvious area of need, the Twins haven't really even set their sights, at least not with any urgent intention of pulling the trigger.

 

We're getting the same explanatory arguments as usual: Terry Ryan and the Twins simply don't like any of the free agents that much. Tony Sipp? Too many years. Antonio Bastardo? Overpaid. This is about evaluation, not spending. It's a line that's being echoed by media members.

 

But of course this overlooks the fact that, so many times in the past, those players that the Twins "haven't liked" ended up having successful seasons in which they could have been difference-makers for the club. Meanwhile, many of the players that they liked enough to sign, who invariably ended up being on the second or third tier in terms of monetary commitments, panned out as poor investments.

 

These payroll arguments that come up every year (usually around this time) are tedious and frustrating in part because they become so repetitive but even more so because people on opposite sides tend to cling to outrageous extremes.

 

The fact that the team isn't spending aggressively and adding big contracts does not necessarily indicate a lack of desire to win, nor is it a surefire sign that ownership is interested only in hoarding cash.

 

At the same time, nobody is arguing that the Twins should "spend money just to spend money," and to dismiss the reality that it costs more to acquire more established and coveted players is ridiculous.

 

So if we're going to have these discussions, let's at least try to be reasonable and realistic. I'm on board with what the Twins seem to be doing, but I'm also running out of patience with watching the same conservative strategies come up short. If the front office's decision to eschew the open market and look inward while their competitors pile up relief talent backfires, there needs to be some accountability. 

 

~~~

 

Heading to TwinsFest on Saturday? Looking for something fun to do afterward? Come check out Twins Daily's third annual Winter Meltdown. It kicks off at Pourhouse in Downtown Minneapolis at 5 PM. Featured guests will include former Twins Carl Pavano and Tim Laudner, and we'll be giving away all kinds of door prizes. Tickets are $25 if you buy online ($35 at the door, if there are any left) and your admission includes two free beers from 612 Brew and a commemorative pint glass.

 

It's gonna be a blast. Join us!

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