FORT MYERS, Fla. — Jose Berrios was optioned to Class AAA Rochester on Saturday, perhaps ceding the fifth spot in the Twins’ starting rotation to righthander Tyler Duffey.
Berrios appeared in only two Grapefruit League games this spring before departing for the World Baseball Classic, where he pitched only twice in nearly three weeks. The long layoff made it more difficult for him to be ready for the start of the regular season, and the Twins chose not to wait.
“They just told me to go to the [minor-league] side and try to get ready for the season. They obviously think I need to work on my pitch count,” Berrios said through an interpreter. “What they’re trying to focus on is for me to be able to, every start, go out and throw from 90 to 100 pitches, and that’s what I think as well.”
Berrios said he understood when he committed to play for Team Puerto Rico that it might complicate his chances of making the team, but he said he has no regrets. “Playing for Puerto Rico is an honor and makes me proud,” he said. “[The Twins]are my team, this is who drafted me and this is who I’m going to make it with. But you don’t get to play for Puerto Rico every year, and I understood that it might hurt my chances to make this team. But I wouldn’t change that. If I had to do it again, I would.”
The Twins have made no commitment about their fifth starting spot, but optioning Berrios appears to mean that Duffey will emerge as the winner of the once-crowded competition for a starting spot, after he pitched impressively in a minor-league game Saturday morning against the Portland Sea Dogs, Boston’s Class AA affiliate. Duffey allowed only an unearned run in six innings, giving up five hits while striking out 10.
“I felt really good. I got some good popups on changeups. Threw a lot of changeups today,” Duffey said. Catcher Chris Gimenez “and I got on the same page early, and we went after them working [inside] to the lefties and away from the righties with the sinker. I got a lot of [bad] swings on the changeup, out in front.”
While Duffey was cruising, his chief competitor, Adalberto Mejia, was having far more difficulty on an adjacent field, giving up six runs in six innings against the Class AAA Pawtucket Red Sox. The lefthander struck out six, but allowed a home run in a five-run second inning.
Was he disappointed in his outing in such pressure-filled circumstances?
“No, my mentality is to always be a big-league pitcher,” Mejia said. “But if I’m in the minors, I’m going to work to get back because I know I’ll get an opportunity to be with the big team.”
There is no indication yet that Saturday’s outings convinced the Twins to end the competition, and Mejia has been the more consistent pitcher this spring, posting a 1.88 ERA in six games against major leaguers this spring, while Duffey has a 3.86 in five appearances. But chief baseball officer Derek Falvey, manager Paul Molitor, and pitching coach Neil Allen all attended the minor-league games at Boston’s JetBlue Park, keeping an eye on both pitchers.
If Duffey is awarded the starting role, it would be a reversal of last season’s end-of-camp competition, when he was overtaken during the final two weeks of camp by lefthander Tommy Milone.
That experience helped this year, Duffey said, “just because I realize what not to do. I came to work on things at spring training, like I’d been used to doing, and I learned very quickly that’s not the way to do it and I ended up in Rochester. [This year], I came in ready.”
Meanwhile, the Twins are in Sarasota tonight for a 5 p.m. CT game with the Orioles that will not be televised. With more cuts expected as soon as Saturday, the lineup has the feel of a “last hurrah” for a few of the players in Minnesota’s lineup.
Here are the batting orders: