FORT MYERS, FLA. – For all the offseason questions about how the Twins will fill the void in the rotation from Sonny Gray's departure, there may be a new popular question in seven months if they return to the playoffs behind a strong pitching staff.

Why wasn't there more attention on Joe Ryan?

This is a guy who was pitching as well as anybody through the first 2½ months of the 2023 season. He is one of the league's best strikeout artists, and he does it with minimal walks.

Ryan's performance, of course, plummeted after the end of June. He didn't communicate a groin injury to the team's medical staff; he became homer-prone; and he never fully recovered to where he was at the beginning of the year. In the postseason, he pitched only two innings.

"Joe showed us pretty much everything last year," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "The highs were very high, and the lows were definitionally what they are."

During Ryan's first 15 starts last year, he yielded an 8-4 record and 2.98 ERA with 100 strikeouts in 93⅔ innings. In his last 14 outings, he had a 3-6 record with a 6.62 ERA and 97 strikeouts in 68 innings.

There was more than one reason for Ryan's rough ending to the season. Pitching through a groin injury, Ryan said, made him develop bad habits in his delivery to compensate for the discomfort. There were times he became too reliant on his fastball and perhaps too predictable against hitters.

"You're in a groove, and you don't really recognize some things," Ryan said. "It's like I can push through some stuff, and then the injury happens. It's like, 'OK, I can keep grinding through this.' It was such a weird issue where I could do so much. It was one move that I hit it and I'd be like, 'Ah.' "

Ryan possesses the upside to be one of the top starting pitchers on a playoff contender. When he returned from a stint on the injured list last year, he made two starts against the eventual World Series champion Texas Rangers within a week. He gave up two runs in 11 innings while striking out 14.

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Elite pitchers generally do three things extremely well: Rack up strikeouts, limit walks and induce weak contact. Ryan excels at the first two parts of that list. Only four pitchers threw 150 innings last season and struck out batters at a higher rate: Spencer Strider, Blake Snell, Kevin Gausman and Freddy Peralta.

"He's shown us for a while now how good he can be," Baldelli said. "He's very consistently in the zone. He's very consistently getting swing and miss. He does so many of the things that are difficult, that many pitchers struggle with. Joe Ryan does those things with ease."

The next step for Ryan, which is a focus this spring, is becoming better at generating soft contact. One pitch to watch is his traditional slider. He worked on throwing it all of last year, but it didn't really click until the end of the season. It doesn't move as much as his sweepy slider, and it doesn't have as much spin, but it's not designed to be his top swing-and-miss pitch.

"We're trying to give him as many weapons as possible," said Matt Daniels, the Twins pitching development specialist. "Not just in terms of sheer movement, but also pitches that maybe don't move as much that might appear more like a fastball out of the hand just to add hesitation against the heater oftentimes. For him, if he's overly reliant on the heater, he can be a little bit more susceptible to damage."

Ryan returned to Driveline, the data-driven pitching facility, for another offseason to work on the consistency of his pitches. His pitch mix has shown it works, but he had stretches he lost the feel for his secondary pitches last year.

"There are going to be new lessons this year, but what I can take from last year is to keep building and not run into the walls," Ryan said. "Or if you do run into them, how can we get over them quicker."

Ryan doesn't feel any pressure to ascend into the team's No. 2 starter role. He admits it's the boring answer, but the role doesn't matter to him. If he's pitching at his best, he's one of the best around.

"With Joe, the consistency of his pitches needs to get better," Baldelli said, "and when he does that, he can go from good to great. ... He's already good."