Entering the offseason, the Twins’ rotation consisted of Jose Berrios and, uh … [checks notes] — that’s about it. Minnesota had quite a bit of work to do to fill out the starting staff and immediately received a boost when Jake Odorizzi accepted a $17.8MM qualifying offer. The Twins brought back another piece of their ’19 rotation when they agreed to a two-year, $20MM deal with Michael Pineda, although he’ll miss the first six weeks while serving the remainder of a reduced 60-game PED suspension. The rest of their moves took a bit longer, but by the time the Twins reported to camp in Fort Myers, Fla., they had lockers set up for Kenta Maeda, Rich Hill and Homer Bailey.
Minnesota didn’t get the “impact” pitching they proclaimed to be a priority, instead pivoting to give Josh Donaldson the second-largest deal in franchise history (four years, $92MM) after coming up short in their pursuits of Zack Wheeler, Hyun-Jin Ryu and (reportedly to a lesser extent) Madison Bumgarner. But they’ll break camp with a rotation consisting of Berrios, Odorizzi, Maeda and Bailey, with both Pineda and Hill (coming back from elbow surgery) looming as midseason additions.
As for the fifth spot early in the season? The Twins have a handful of options who’ll be considered over the course of the next month, including a series of optionable 40-man roster members and at least one low-risk non-roster invitee…
- Randy Dobnak, RHP: It’s hard not to consider Dobnak the front-runner, considering the Twins entrusted him with a postseason start last year after Pineda was suspended. That outing, of course, didn’t go well, but Dobnak’s 2019 season was nonetheless an eye-opener. It took the 25-year-old two years and one week to go from undrafted indie league hurler to the Majors. His rapid ascent in 2019 was in no small part due to the combined 2.07 ERA, 7.3 K/9, 1.6 BB/9, 0.40 HR/9 and near-60 percent ground-ball rate he turned in over 135 minor league innings (three levels). Upon reaching the big leagues, Dobnak turned in a 1.59 ERA and 2.90 FIP in 28 1/3 innings. He won’t simply be handed the job, but Dobnak went from an unranked prospect within the Twins’ system to a potential rotation favorite in the span of one year.
- Devin Smeltzer, LHP: Not to be overshadowed, Smeltzer had an impressive 2019 campaign of his own. Acquired in the trade that sent Brian Dozier to Los Angeles, the 24-year-old turned in a 2.76 ERA with a pristine 104-to-22 K/BB ratio in 104 1/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. His big league work wasn’t quite as sharp, but in 49 innings, Smeltzer gave the Twins a 3.86 ERA with averages of 7.0 strikeouts, 2.2 walks and 1.47 homers per nine innings pitched. Like Dobnak, he elevated his status within the organization about as much as a prospect can in a year’s time. For what it’s worth, the Twins’ outfield defense is vastly superior to its infield defense, and Smeltzer is a fly-ball pitcher.
- Lewis Thorpe, LHP: Thorpe, 24, was a notable signing out of Australia back on the 2012-13 international market and twice landed on Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101 prospects list (2014-15). Tommy John surgery in 2015 wound up costing him all of the 2015-16 seasons, though, which significantly delayed his path to the big leagues. Thorpe has shown huge strikeout ability in the minors, and while last year’s 4.58 ERA in Triple-A doesn’t look like much, it was at least a respectable showing in a league that was dominated by hitters. Thorpe averaged better than 11 punchouts per nine frames in Triple-A and struck out 31 hitters in 27 2/3 MLB frames in his debut effort. His bottom-line results in the Majors weren’t great (6.18 ERA), but he’s now fully recovered from Tommy John surgery and misses more bats than any of his competition.
- Jhoulys Chacin, RHP (non-roster): The primary veteran NRI in Twins camp, Chacin stumbled through the worst season of his career in 2019, recording a 6.01 ERA and serving up an average of 2.2 homers per nine innings pitched. The long ball has never been an Achilles heel for Chacin, though, and he’s only a year removed from a strong showing in Milwaukee (3.50 ERA, 7.3 K/9, 3.3 BB/9 in 192 2/3 innings). In fact, from 2013-18, Chacin notched a 3.96 ERA/4.02 FIP in 804 1/3 innings. It’ll surprise some to learn that Chacin only just turned 32 years old in January — he debuted at 21 back in 2009 — so a rebound is hardly out of the question. It seems likely that Chacin would need to handily outperform the rest of the field, given that he’s not on the 40-man roster, but he’s in the mix even if he’s a long shot.
Whoever wins the competition appears likely to be a stopgap until Pineda returns, but it’s possible that any combination of the candidates will also see action in the bullpen as well. This group will also be the Twins’ first line of defense against potential injuries. However it shakes out, Minnesota seems likely to once again explore the market for higher-end pitching upgrades on the summer trade market. The above-listed candidates, Pineda and Hill give the Twins plenty of depth in the rotation, but expect them to pursue potential playoff-rotation-caliber arms in the weeks leading up to the deadline as well.