CINCINNATI – Maybe Chase Petty someday matches 100-mile-per-hour fastballs at Target Field with Jhoan Duran. Picture Matt Canterino frustrating hitters with his four-pitch mix, and Jordan Balazovic blowing high fastballs by them.
The Twins are busy assembling what they figure will be a formidable starting rotation — someday. But they also have a much more pressing, if less inspiring, objective with their pitching staff: Finding the arms to cover the remaining 54 games of the 2021 season.
"I can't say that I can line them up and tell you who's going to be starting right now," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "We have some options. Some of them are here. Some of them are not here right now."
Three-fifths of their season-opening starting rotation is gone, with Jose Berrios and J.A. Happ traded and Matt Shoemaker no longer on the 40-man roster. Major injuries have removed the depth of major league experience behind them, injuries to pitchers such as Randy Dobnak, Lewis Thorpe and Devin Smeltzer. The lack of a 2020 minor league season has made teams cautious about overextending young pitchers this year, too. And new rules this season — limiting September roster size to 28, and extending the Class AAA schedule to Oct. 3, same as in the majors — make mass call-ups in September impossible, too.
"We've got our work ahead of us," said Derek Falvey, the Twins president of baseball operations. "We think the young pitching we have, plus the likes of Kenta Maeda among a number of other guys who have pitched for us and been successful for us at different times will help us build a foundation."
Maeda, who starts the first game of a two-game series at Cincinnati on Tuesday, is indeed the foundation of the remaining starting staff, and he has extra incentive to contribute as many innings as he can over the final two months. Maeda earns only $3 million in guaranteed salary per season, a modest sum for a veteran by MLB standards, but can add as much as $10 million more depending upon how many starts he makes and how many innings he pitches.
Last year's AL Cy Young Award runner-up has already banked an extra $1 million for surpassing 15 starts, and by recording 12 outs on Tuesday, he will earn another $250,000 for reaching 90 innings. He also had a 2.15 ERA in his five starts in July, making him the ace of this playing-it-out staff.
Michael Pineda, not traded last week despite a contract that expires once the season ends, is trying to demonstrate for potential free-agent suitors that his bothersome forearm is healthy again. With a decade of big-league experience, he is also the most prominent veteran on the staff, a role he said he relishes.
"Jose and Happ are gone, so I'm the old guy in the rotation," said Pineda, "old" at 32. "I feel blessed that I can help these young guys in whatever situation they need me."
Young guys such as Bailey Ober, who might be the most pleasant surprise of the Twins' season. Ober has started 11 games and given up two runs or fewer in six of them. But Ober didn't pitch at all in 2020 and has never thrown more than 78 innings in any season, so the Twins limit him to about 80 pitches a start — and they are considering giving him fewer starts down the stretch.
"This is a discussion that we're actively having right now … a bigger discussion about Bailey's workload and what the best thing is to do," Baldelli said. "There's a lot of informed opinion, but very few hard numbers or facts that you can rely on. So right now we're just going to keep letting him pitch and keep an eye on him."
Another rookie righthander, Griffin Jax, is in the rotation for now, too, though like Ober, he didn't pitch last year. He pitched 127 innings in 2019, though, so there is less apprehension about his workload. Jax's first career start was a rough one at Kansas City, but he has rebounded to give up only one run in each of his past two starts, albeit in only a total of nine innings.
So who's left to fill out the rotation? Soft-throwing lefthander Charlie Barnes, impressive in his debut start at Detroit, is in the bullpen and available. It's possible Dobnak could return from the 60-day injured list after a nagging injury in his pitching hand wiped out his season. And Shoemaker has a 2.12 ERA in three starts with the Saints, if the Twins want to give the 34-year-old another chance.
The most intriguing possibilities, however, might be the two pitchers acquired from Tampa Bay in the Nelson Cruz trade. Joe Ryan, now pitching for the United States Olympic team in Japan, had a 3.63 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 57 innings for Class AAA Durham. Drew Strotman gave up four runs in 4⅓ innings in his St. Paul debut on Saturday, but he owned a 3.39 ERA in 58⅓ innings at Durham this year.
Both are considered valuable prospects, likely future big-leaguers. Could that future start in 2021?
It's possible, Falvey and Baldelli said.
"We can't let this season go for nothing, right?" Falvey said. "We have to find a way to continue to develop the young players. … In a lot of ways, we're trying to play catch-up."