NASHVILLE – The way Louie Varland pitched at the end of the 2023 season makes it easy to dream about his potential.
Varland shifted to the bullpen in September for the playoff push and he looked like a different pitcher. As a reliever, he gave up six hits and two runs in 12 innings (1.50 ERA) with 17 strikeouts and one walk.
One question facing the Twins, which might not be definitively answered until spring training, is how committed they are to keeping the former North St. Paul and Concordia (St. Paul) standout in their starting rotation.
"When he is throwing 100 with a 90- to 92-mile-an-hour cutter and you're sending him out there against the best hitters that you are going to face and he is going right through them, it makes you open your eyes a little bit," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "That's exciting. But he can also start. It's hard to develop starting pitching in this game."
Varland throws two pitches that receive plus grades: His four-seam fastball and his cutter. That's all he needed to thrive as a reliever, but he will need to execute a better third pitch to improve as a starter.
When Varland was in the Twins rotation, he posted a 3-3 record and a 5.30 ERA in 10 starts.
The Twins need starting depth after losing Sonny Gray, Kenta Maeda and Tyler Mahle to free agency. Varland, who will turn 26 on Saturday, is lined up as the club's No. 5 starter, though the Twins plan to add a starter this winter.
Baldelli likes the idea of Varland in the bullpen, confident he could become a late-inning weapon, but he says pitching coach Pete Maki is bullish about Varland's development as a starter.
"Pete is optimistic that he could be a very good major league starting pitcher," Baldelli said. "When you have those guys in front of you, you don't look away. You don't just put a guy in the 'pen just because he ticks up when he's in the 'pen. If you have a major league starter, you're going to want to start him and give you innings."
Even if the Twins returned all their starters from last season, they would be hard pressed to replicate the results. The rotation collectively led the majors in strikeouts (970), ranked second in ERA (3.82) and fourth in innings pitched (895).
Now they are taking away Gray, who finished runner-up in the AL Cy Young voting, and Maeda, who pitched well in the second half of the season.
"Our rotation was good to us last year," Baldelli said. "They were very productive, very effective. Every time we handed the ball to someone, we got a good start, it felt like. It's not going to be the same rotation. But you start adding [Chris] Paddack in there, you start looking at Louie Varland. We have some guys, but we're going to stay open-minded and see if we can maybe even add to the group."
When Varland was used as a starter, opposing hitters had a .660 OPS against him in their first plate appearance, a .777 OPS in their second plate appearance and a 1.224 OPS in the third plate appearance. It underscores the importance of Varland finding a reliable third pitch.
Varland shared his preference to remain a starter when he was initially moved to the bullpen. After losing a couple of starters in free agency, he'll likely be given a chance to show if he can translate what he did in the bullpen.
"Just the fact that we're even talking about this, it's a real good thing," said Baldelli, noting the Twins will build up Varland as a starter in spring training before determining his role. "He'll be ready."