FORT MYERS, FLA. – There are heralded prospects, and then there’s Tyler Duffey.
A fifth-round pick in 2012, Duffey never cracked anyone’s top-100 prospects list. The highest he rose was to 16th in Baseball America’s list of top Twins prospects in 2015.
The wait was for Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano to take over Target Field. But the under-hyped Duffey arrived last season, and his impact on the starting rotation helped the Twins remain in the postseason race until the final weekend. While fans await the arrival of another elite prospect — Jose Berrios — Duffey remains.
At least for now. Duffey, in a battle with fellow righthander Ricky Nolasco for the final spot in the rotation, will pitch Monday vs. Pittsburgh in Bradenton. Nolasco will stay in Fort Myers to face Baltimore’s Class A Frederick team, with a Twins coach or front-office executive there to evaluate him.
Manager Paul Molitor said he doesn’t want the decision to linger, so expect an announcement Tuesday. That choice won’t be made only on Monday’s results, General Manager Terry Ryan said, but “every outing is a performance you take into consideration.”
Regardless of what happens, Twins officials remain high on Duffey.
“He’s got pitches,” Ryan said. “He’s got guts. He’s got strength. He’s got stamina. He throws it over and he’s not afraid.
“He’s got a chance to be a good major league starter.”
Duffey, 25, went 5-1 with a 3.10 ERA in 10 starts last season. After a beatdown at Toronto in his major league debut Aug. 5, he was 5-0 with a 2.25 ERA. His low-90s fastball stayed away from the fat part of the plate. His curveball baffled opponents. Duffey throws it at three speeds and was unpredictable when he threw it.
“He’s got all the tools,” pitching coach Neil Allen said.
Duffey was one of 63 pitchers selected during the first five rounds of the 2012 draft. Of those 63, 17 have reached the majors. Of those, only five have a WAR — wins above replacement, a statistic to help estimate a player’s contributions to his team — higher than Duffey’s, whose 1.6 WAR was crafted from Aug. 5 on.
He has impressed when no one was sure what type of impact he would ever make, when no one was sure how he would handle being thrown into the fire of a playoff battle.
He gained a reputation for his competitiveness, a trait all teams love. But sometimes he takes that a little too far. Take golf, for instance. He doesn’t keep nice clubs for one reason.
“He has thrown them every now and then,” said lefthander Taylor Rogers, Duffey’s teammate throughout the minors. “You never know what he’s going to do.”
Duffey admits to having rough days on the course.
“It’s doing anything in sports, you are competitive,” he said. “And the ball is not moving. All you have to do is hit it, and it is really hard.”
It has transferred to baseball. During one practice this spring, Duffey admonished himself on the field for making a poor throw during pitchers’ fielding practice. Teammates asked if he was serious. He was.
Duffey struck out a batter once, and complained about it. “It wasn’t a good pitch,” he said. “He just missed it.”
The Twins watch out for the moments when Duffey might get too amped up to maintain his mechanics. Catcher Kurt Suzuki had to visit the mound several times last season to reel him back in.
“A couple times he had to come out and go, ‘Hey look, relax. Just throw the pitch,’ ” Duffey said. “Once I check back in I can do that.”
Duffey, with Allen’s help, is working on throwing his changeup more this season. The inevitable counterpunch from opponents will be to lay off his curve, or know the right time to attack it. Duffey is going to throw the changeup to make hitters worry about a third pitch.
Allen also is going to help Duffey avoid the moments in which his zest for competition goes a little too far. Because Duffey’s potential is too great.
“He’s a good human being,” Allen said. “He’s a good person. It’s just that he’s very, very hard on himself. He’s a perfectionist, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Staff writer Phil Miller contributed to this report.