Nobody would have blamed Logan Darnell if he had decided to skip TwinsFest last month. Technically, he isn’t even a member of the major league team anymore.
But there the Tennessee lefthander was, signing autographs, greeting fans and catching up with teammates. Darnell even flew cross-country early the morning of Jan. 30 to get to Minnesota for the festival, after attending Michael Tonkin’s wedding in California on Jan. 29.
Quite an effort on behalf of a team that was willing to let him walk away only a week earlier.
“It’s just business. They have to do what they think they need to,” Darnell shrugged. “I understand it.”
That didn’t make the phone call from General Manager Terry Ryan any easier. Darnell had just gotten home from winter ball in Venezuela on Jan. 22 when Ryan got in touch to deliver some bad news: The Twins had claimed another lefthanded pitcher, Michael Strong, off waivers from Miami. Since they already were at the 40-man roster limit, they had to cut somebody — “designate for assignment,” in the neutral-sounding baseball terminology — and Darnell was the unlucky designee.
“It kind of came out of left field,” Darnell said, considering his strong 2015 season at Class AAA Rochester. “Of course I’m disappointed. You want to be confident, to feel like you’re getting ready to do good things for the team. I think I’m pitching really well, and when they take you off [the roster], it’s a blow.”
Yet when Darnell thought about it, he realized that little had changed. He had the right to walk away and become a free agent, but with less than a month before training camp, he knew finding a major league contract somewhere else was unlikely, especially when he cleared waivers without any team claiming him. If he was only going to get a minor league contract and an invitation to spring training, it made sense to choose a team that has bullpen job available this spring, especially for lefthanders.
A team like … well, the Twins.
Ryan has declined to re-sign lefthanders Brian Duensing and Neal Cotts this winter, so the opportunity is there for someone to have a breakthrough in camp. If someone does, it won’t matter whether they are on the 40-man roster or not. As Molitor said last month, if a pitcher is getting outs reliably, “it’s not hard to find a spot.”
And there was one other factor, too.
“I really like the Twins,” said Darnell, who has been in the organization since being drafted in the sixth round out of Kentucky in 2010. “It’s all I’ve known, and I like how they treat you here. … Things are not always better on the other side of the hill.”
So Darnell signed a minor league contract and will report to camp with his teammates on Sunday, hoping that his 2.78 ERA at Rochester last year, his 66 strikeouts in 77 innings, and his ability to both start (seven times last year, with a 3-0 record and 1.13 ERA) and relieve make him a candidate for a long-relief role. Worst case, he will be a free agent again next fall, when there is more time to find a new contract. But he would rather earn a chance to improve on his major league results: four starts and three relief appearances in 2014, and a disappointing 7.13 ERA.
He got ready by spending nearly three months in Venezuela — or about a month longer than anticipated. He played for the Bravos de Margarita along with a handful of other Twins minor leaguers like Omar Bencomo, David Hurlbut and Yorman Landa, the latter of whom, coincidentally, had just been added to the Twins’ 40-man roster.
Darnell became a mainstay of the Bravos’ rotation and pitched well. He planned to come home in mid-December, but by then the Bravos, who had not made the playoffs in a decade, were in a pennant race and he didn’t want to walk out on his teammates. When they qualified for the postseason, he made the same decision, and made two playoff starts, one of them a seven-inning, one-run victory over Aragua in which the only run was a home run by Eduardo Escobar.
Margarita finally was eliminated Jan. 11 — a 1-0 loss started by Hurlbut — and Darnell came home, tired but encouraged about 2016.
“I ended up getting 58 innings,” said Darnell, or more than two-thirds as many as he got during the regular season. “I think it was good for me. I was throwing really well, feeling pretty good.”
Then came the phone call from Ryan, and an offseason transaction that certainly feels like a demotion.
“I’m not going to think about that. Can’t do anything about it anyway,” he said. “I wish I was on the roster. If I pitch well enough, I will be.”