FORT MYERS, FLA. – There is something Terry Ryan misses from his starting rotation.
“We haven’t had any length in our rotation for a while now,” said the Twins general manager, aware that Phil Hughes is his team’s only starter to throw 200 innings in a season since 2011.
This season could be different, as the Twins return a starting rotation that lacks a true No. 1 ace but improved last season and has a few pitchers capable of pitching into the seventh inning or later.
The trend in baseball is toward buttressing bullpens. The World Series champion Kansas City Royals have thrived with a power arm parade out of their bullpen, making it hopeless for opponents to rally when trailing after six innings. Royals starters, in fact, threw 912⅔ innings in 2015, 24th in the majors.
But Ryan remains in favor of having starters who can pitch deep into games to protect against bullpen burnout. Twins starters threw 928 innings last season, 20th in baseball. Twins starters were last in baseball in 2014 with a 5.06 ERA, but their 4.14 ERA last season under first-year pitching coach Neil Allen was good for 16th. There’s optimism that the 200-inning barrier will be broken by at least one Twins pitcher this season.
“The 200-inning mark is kind of a mystical number for a starting pitcher,” said righthander Kyle Gibson, who was 11-11 with a 3.84 ERA in 194⅔ innings. “I think what it really shows is that if you’re getting to 200 innings, everything else is going to fall into place.
“You’re not going to have to look at your ERA and wonder if you had a good year. If you’re throwing 200 innings, you are averaging over six innings a start and you’re doing something right.”
Gibson, 28, led the staff in innings pitched in 2015, nearly cracking the 200-inning barrier for the first time. Hughes, 29, threw 209⅔ innings in 2014 and famously turned down an offer to pitch in relief at the end of the season to get past 210 innings and earn a bonus. Ervin Santana, 33, has thrown 200-plus innings five times and 196 in another, but he missed 80 games last year in his first season with the Twins to serve a suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs.
Ricky Nolasco, a 33-year-old who is not guaranteed a spot in the rotation, has thrown more than 200 innings twice. Lefthander Tommy Milone, 28, threw 190 innings in 2012, his first full season with Oakland, but he hasn’t gotten close since.
“I do see that potential we have to get more length out of our rotation to take a little stress off of our bullpen,” Ryan said. “They are capable. It’s not like we’re talking about 21-year-old kids here. These guys are somewhat of a veteran staff.”
There are some starters still finding their footing but who will, or can, factor into the rotation. Tyler Duffey, 25, went 5-1 with a 3.10 ERA in 10 starts to keep the Twins in playoff contention late in the season.
“He opened a lot of people’s eyes,” Milone said.
Trevor May, 26, landed in the bullpen last season when the Twins really needed help there. He is coming to camp stretched out to start but will likely begin the season in the bullpen, barring unforeseen developments.
Jose Berrios, 21, reached Class AAA Rochester last season and was 6-2 with a 2.62 ERA to cement his status as one of the top pitching prospects in the game. He likely will begin the season at Rochester but could get the call if there’s a need for a starter.
Based on how last season ended, a rotation of Hughes, Santana, Gibson, Duffey and Milone seems most likely, with Nolasco and May in the bullpen and Berrios in the minors, Injuries and effectiveness could lead to a different starting five.
And no team in this age goes through a season without needing more starters. If Nolasco doesn’t crack the starting five, he could be summoned from the bullpen. May might be needed to spot start. Berrios should make his major league debut at some point this season.
Overall, it’s a group the Twins feel good about.
“There’s going to be injuries, there’s going to be guys who run into rough patches,” Gibson said. “That’s going to happen every year.. Our success is going to be determined by how the other guys step up and fill the shoes if there is a void.”
It’s the makeup of this group that has the Twins optimistic that one or more pitchers will reach the 200-inning mark this season. The Twins haven’t had multiple pitchers reach 200 innings since 2009, when Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn did it.
“We can have our good games and we can have our bad games,” Hughes said. “But our bad games can’t be ones that we’re just giving away. We have to give ourselves a chance. If we go out and have a bad start, we can still battle for seven innings and give us a chance. That’s the biggest key.”