On Opening Day, what you heard at Target Field was that for the Twins to have a chance this season Kyle Gibson would have to produce.
On May 4, the Twins decided that for them to have a chance this season Kyle Gibson would have to leave.
The same Twins who lost 103 games in 2016 started a game in May 2017 in first place in the American League Central, then watched Gibson deflate a ballpark filled with a nervous form of optimism.
Almost eight years after the Twins chose him with a first-round draft pick, Gibson pitched his way back to the minors. He lasted four innings against a bad-hitting team, giving up four earned runs in the Twins’ 8-5 loss to Oakland at Target Field, then was demoted to Class AAA Rochester.
In 2016, Gibson greased the Twins’ slide into oblivion. In 2017, he coated their ladder to relevance with WD-40.
Since the start of the 2016 season, the Twins’ someday would-be ace has an ERA of 5.55. His ERA this season is 8.20.
The confluence of Gibson’s failure and the team’s tentative success is a reminder of the hard work that remains for the new front office. The Twins are taking better at-bats, Miguel Sano looks like a star, Byron Buxton was displaying a pulse before smashing into the center-field fence Thursday and the position players look capable of supporting a winning team.
But the pitching staff remains without a young star. Or a young standout. Or a young representative.
Gibson is 29, long past such comforting words as “prospect” or “promising.” He has never won more than 13 games. In 104 career starts, he has a 32-42 record with a 4.76 ERA.
He isn’t going to Rochester to find what he lost. He is going to Rochester to find what he has rarely had.
The Twins rotation has improved dramatically this season but remains fragile. Ervin Santana’s dominance might only set him up to be traded. Hector Santiago is 29 and more of a mid-rotation contributor than ace. Phil Hughes is trying to reinvent himself but might not have the stuff to survive repeat matchups with opponents. And Gibson has been one of baseball’s worst starting pitchers for more than a year.
More telling than the Twins’ place in the standings is their choice of starters Saturday. They will hand the ball to Nick Tepesch, a 28-year-old with a 4.68 ERA in 223 big-league innings.
Twins manager Paul Molitor said the Twins might call up a reliever to temporarily replace Gibson on the roster because the team has a day off Monday, but that doesn’t obscure what Gibson’s demotion means for the organization:
Jose Berrios is more important than ever.
Molitor also spoke highly of Adalberto Mejia, who impressed this spring and began the season as the Twins’ fifth starter, but Berrios will be the next young pitcher asked to rise to the top of the rotation, and Gibson’s collapse heightens the pressure on him to fulfill his promise.
Berrios has a 1.09 ERA at Class AAA Rochester but has failed before to translate minor league success into major league competence. If the Twins are to make this season interesting, Berrios will have to learn to calm his nerves in big-league parks.
Gibson was a first-round draft pick. The Twins traded Denard Span to Washington for Alex Meyer, another tall first-round pick with quality stuff unable to get out big-league hitters. Berrios was a first-round pick in 2012.
Since then, the Twins have spent first-round picks on two other pitchers, Kohl Stewart and Tyler Jay. Stewart is 0-4 with a 6.05 ERA at Class AA Chattanooga. Jay is in the Chattanooga bullpen and injured.
So it came to be that on May the 4th, a day that has become an unofficial Star Wars holiday, the Twins had little choice but to start thinking, “Help us, Jose Berrios. You’re our only hope.”