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.