Unless the Twins make a shocking trade in the next two months, Rocco Baldelli will open his second season as manager with only three experienced pitchers in his starting rotation. Which explains Baldelli's tense, uptight demeanor at the kickoff of the Twins' annual winter caravan Monday.
Just kidding. It's Baldelli — no mere pitching shortage can dent his laid-back serenity. Especially since he doesn't believe he has one.
"We're in a great spot," Baldelli gushed about a Twins rotation that has question marks and cross-your-fingers after All-Stars Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi and newcomer Homer Bailey. "We're in a great position with some of our young guys, [who will] come in and help us during the year. We have all the confidence in the world in those guys."
Baldelli happened to be sitting near one of them, Randy Dobnak, at the team's first promotional appearance of the winter caravan, a public interview in downtown Minneapolis that was simulcast on WCCO-AM. Dobnak, a rookie righthander who posted a 1.59 ERA in nine games (five starts) with the Twins in 2019, will compete with lefthanders and fellow rookies Lewis Thorpe and Devin Smeltzer this spring for the right to join the three veterans on the season-opening staff.
It won't be a traditional competition, Baldelli said, because all three young pitchers figure to win it. "Each of them is going to pitch for us at some point, and probably start games for us. They'll all have the opportunity," he said. "We want the guys to relax, just go out there and perform. I don't think it's a situation where they should be feeling an exceptional amount of pressure. We know what they can do, and we're not asking any more from them than to simply use the talents and ability we know they already have."
Dobnak, for instance, gave up only two earned runs in three starts over the season's final two weeks, including five strong innings in Cleveland when the Twins were trying to complete a sweep of the Indians to all but put away the AL Central. Dobnak left with a 4-2 lead, but the bullpen squandered it in a 7-5 loss on Sept. 15.
"We're trying to clinch a spot, and we're sending Randy Dobnak out there because we know he can get the outs," Baldelli said of the rookie, who began 2019 at Class A Fort Myers and ended it starting Game 2 of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium. "He goes out there and he does it."
Michael Pineda can return to the Twins during Mother's Day Weekend in May after completing his 60-day suspension for failing a drug test last summer, and newly signed lefthander Rich Hill will work his way back from elbow surgery sometime after the All-Star break. That, too, should reduce the pressure on the three rookies — a status all three retain, though each made at least nine appearances in 2019 — according to Baldelli and his pitching coach, Wes Johnson.
"We'll have the depth eventually. And this gives each of them a chance to get a foothold in the big leagues," said Johnson, who joined Dobnak and Baldelli in a brief caravan tour that includes stops in St. Cloud, Glencoe and St. Paul. "We want these guys to seize this opportunity, to prove they deserve to stay. They're young guys" — Dobnak, who turned 25 over the weekend, is the oldest — "but they're ready."
The Twins signed Bailey and Hill to one-year deals on Dec. 31 after failing to land fellow free agents Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner or Hyun-Jin Ryu on long-term contracts. But the Twins instead are using their funds to invest in a bat in Josh Donaldson, whose pending arrival has his Baldelli excited.
Baldelli said he spent 90 minutes on the phone with Donaldson last month, and while he doesn't know whether that conversation played a role in the third baseman's decision to accept a $92 million contract with the Twins, it made the manager excited about the prospect.
"He's kind of a baseball rat, in a good way. Loves talking about the game, so it was an easy conversation," Baldelli said of Donaldson, who is expected to sign his four-year contract, the largest free-agent deal in Twins history, on Wednesday. "You can tell he's really passionate. You spend five minutes on the field watching him, you know there's an intensity about him. He's just an incredibly impactful guy, he changes the game. So we're really happy to add him to our group."