FORT MYERS, FLA. – Twins pitchers finished their workouts on Saturday with a series of sprints in the springtime sun. Hustle 150 feet across the outfield, trudge back, do it again a dozen times. Mindless drudgery, the backbone of training camps.
But these are competitive athletes, and that instinct gradually emerged. By the time the sprints were half over, a small group of the pitchers had separated themselves, turning every lap into on Olympic stretch run. And at the end, Ervin Santana, the second-oldest player on the Twins roster, claimed the gold medal, then casually walked toward the clubhouse in victory while a few of his teammates lay on the ground, puffing for breath.
An impressive display, considering no pitcher has had as strong a stranglehold on a rotation spot for the Twins since another Santana, the Cy Young winner Johan, nearly a decade ago. Why put in such a pennant-race effort six weeks before the first pitch is even thrown?
“It doesn’t matter if you have a spot, you still have to prove it,” Santana said with a what-a-silly-question shrug. “I have to make sure I’m ready, just like every year. Even if you have a spot, if you pitch bad, you’re not going to be in the rotation for long.”
The Twins, to put it politely, gave that notion a test in 2016, when the statistically worst corps of starters in the major leagues (with a 30th-ranked 5.39 ERA) doomed them to the worst season in franchise history. Eleven pitchers were handed a chance to start, and only Santana (at 3.38) managed to keep his ERA below 5.00, the first time in 20 years the Twins have had so few.
“It’s pretty much common knowledge that we have to pitch better,” manager Paul Molitor said, sighing. “And we’re going to be open-minded about who can do that.”
He’s not kidding. The Twins, when Grapefruit League games commence this week, will begin auditioning the largest group of potential starters they’ve ever had, hoping that by attacking with sheer quantity, they can identify sufficient quality. Molitor and chief baseball officer Derek Falvey won’t put an exact number on how many pitchers are in contention for a rotation spot, but there are at least 10, and arguably a dozen, candidates who could pitch their way into an every-fifth-day assignment over the next six weeks.
There are pitchers returning from injury, and pitchers returning from, er, subpar years. There are veteran newcomers on minor league contracts, and rookies from within the system getting their first taste of the majors. They’ve traded for a couple, converted one from the bullpen, and claimed one in the Rule 5 draft.
But if the teeming masses seems like overkill, well, Falvey would argue that point.
“Any time you start thinking you have more starting candidates than you need, that goes away quickly,” he said. His new team, Falvey added, intends to “stretch out more [pitchers] than maybe would be typical.”
They have more questions than are typical, too, starting with: How many spots are even available?
Santana is a given, unless Falvey suddenly decides to execute a teardown strategy by trading the 34-year-old Dominican. But beyond their Opening Day starter, the Twins don’t possess a pitcher who isn’t lugging around an armload of question marks. Yet the Twins suspect that isn’t as motley a crew as it seemed a year ago.
Phil Hughes is now three years removed from his breakthrough 2014 season, when he won 16 games and walked only 16 batters in a 210-inning season. He’s also recovering from surgery last July to remove a rib and relieve his thoracic outlet syndrome. The 30-year-old righthander is healthy once more, and is a favorite to reclaim his spot in the rotation, though it’s worth remembering that Hughes was injured last summer after being demoted to the bullpen.
Still, Molitor doesn’t hide his optimism.
“A healthy Phil Hughes gives you a chance to win more times than not,” Molitor said. “That potentially is a huge piece. … You would like to think that if he’s healthy, he’s going to be motivated to help us kind of change the direction here.”
Beyond that, however, the rotation remains in limbo. Kyle Gibson and Hector Santiago likely have an edge, but neither was consistently effective in 2016. Gibson, who posted a quality start only once in his final eight outings, isn’t taking his position for granted.
“I’’m trying not to think about whether I have a spot locked up, but just having a competitive mind-set,” said Gibson, whose 32 wins as a Twins starter are the most on the current roster. “I know I have to earn it.”
If those four veterans capture starting jobs, it sets off a mass scramble for the fifth and final slot. Jose Berrios, once the Twins’ top pitching prospect, ended his rookie season with two months of starts but an 8.02 ERA. Trevor May was once a starter but moved to the bullpen in 2015 to make room for Santana. Concern that his recurring back pain is aggravated by an unpredictable work schedule has convinced the Twins to try him in the rotation once more.
A couple of pitchers on minor league contracts will have a chance to make their case, too. Ryan Vogelsong is 39 but owned a 2.25 ERA through his first seven starts in 2016. Nick Tepesch, once one of the Rangers’ hottest pitching prospects, has 43 games of big-league experience.
Rule 5 selection Justin Haley and Twins minor league pitcher of the year Stephen Gonsalves lack that experience and are probably long shots to escape the crowd, but who knows? “When we selected [Haley], we could see him competing for both the rotation and bullpen,” Falvey said. “So we’re going to keep that flexibility in mind.”
Lefthander Adalberto Mejía pitched one game for Minnesota last year, but his 25-to-3 strikeout-to-walk rate at Rochester was impressive.
And then there is Tyler Duffey, a mystery to the Twins — and himself. His ERA more than doubled, from 3.10 as a rookie to 6.43 last year, but the 26-year-old righthander believes he has taken steps to conquer his biggest enemy: his emotions.
“It’s me being too competitive, but I’ve been working on it, recognizing when I get to that red line and slow down,” he said. “I have to realize that no matter what just happened, the only pitch I can throw now is the next one.”
That’s not a bad mantra for a pitching staff in flux, for a clubhouse full of rotation candidates that must be pared to five. Judging won’t be easy, either, since there won’t be enough innings available to go around. And Santiago and Berrios will depart midcamp to represent Puerto Rico at the World Baseball Classic, further limiting their chances to impress.
But perhaps it won’t matter, because exhibition games aren’t the best way to detect regular-season potential, anyway. “Performance alone in spring training will not drive these decisions. We have to take a long-term view of this,” Falvey said. “That’s not to say there won’t be competition and won’t be things in camp that can change our mind.”
Molitor hopes his army of arms doesn’t change his mind, just his success. And it’s possible, he said.
“There are so many different ways it could go, it’s hard to predict where we will be on” Opening Day, he said. “We have a lot of options, though. That gives you hope.”