Twins Daily: Twins 2020 position analysis: Starting pitcher

Nick Nelson of Twins Daily dives into Minnesota's starting pitchers.
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Jose Berrios

The Twins are loaded on offense and in the bullpen. These are clear areas of strength. The rotation stands out as a pivotal factor in determining whether this is a division-winning team or a championship-caliber team.

So let's dissect this unit from front to back.

Projected Rotation: Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, Kenta Maeda, Homer Bailey, Jhoulys Chacin

Depth: Michael Pineda, Rich Hill, Randy Dobnak, Devin Smeltzer, Lewis Thorpe
Prospects: Jordan Balazovic, Jhoan Duran, Blayne Enlow

THE GOOD

The Twins will be at least three-deep with upper-tier starters out of the gates. Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi were All-Stars last year and both ranked among MLB's top 20 starting pitchers in fWAR. Kenta Maeda has a track record as one of the game's premium strikeout pitchers, and was a longtime cog for the always-dominant Dodgers.

These are thoroughbreds, and Minnesota's sophisticated coaching infrastructure increases the likelihood of optimal output. As much as folks want to treat last year's rotation as a crippling weak point that doomed the Twins in October, their starters were collectively respectable in 2019. They ranked seventh among MLB teams in fWAR, 11th in ERA, and eighth in FIP.

Those numbers were dragged down significantly by Martin Perez and his 4.99 ERA in 29 starts. He's gone, and it's tough to imagine any replacement coming close to his level of ineffectiveness. Kyle Gibson too was a liability down the stretch, diminished by his physical ailment, and he also has moved on.

Tentatively slated to replace them in the back half of the rotation are veteran free agent signings Homer Bailey and Jhoulys Chacin. Each one brings a certain element of intrigue: Bailey made major strides late last year with a weaponized splitter, and Chacin has a better career ERA+ than Berrios, Odorizzi and Maeda.

That said, the Twins are not beholden to either back-end option, least of all Chacin with his non-guaranteed contract. There are plenty of capable arms vying to take their places, not counting the eventual arrivals of front-end talents in Michael Pineda and Rich Hill.

Randy Dobnak pitched exceedingly well as a rookie during the stretch run last year, and made a start in the playoffs. Devin Smeltzer posted a 3.86 ERA over 49 innings, looking very much up to the task as a fill-in. Lewis Thorpe offers the most upside of the three and flashed big strikeout stuff during a bumpy debut. Then you've got top prospects Jordan Balazovic and Jhoan Duran, who are both nearing the point of a potential call-up.

I can't ever remember a time where the Twins were this deep on quality options. Even back in the glory days, when boasting one of the league's top overall rotations led by Johan Santana, Minnesota always seemed to have blatant weakness on the back end, with a lack of high-caliber reinforcements to step in.

Obviously nothing is guaranteed with the likes of Bailey, or Chacin, or the various mostly-untested minor leaguers, but there are a lot of quality options in this mix, providing the Twins with plentiful contingencies in the inevitability of health and performance setbacks.

THE BAD

The Twins might now have more depth than those classic Santana-led rotations, but they what they don't have is a Santana. Minnesota has won two of its 21 postseason contests dating back to 2003, and both of those games were started by Johan, underscoring the vital importance of a shutdown No. 1 starter.

It's not clear the Twins have one. It's also not clear they don't; Berrios and Odorizzi both bordered on that designation in 2019, and neither has turned 30 yet. Maeda has frequently been dominant on the big stage, and has qualities that put him into the potential ace discussion. Hill has put up stellar numbers when on the mound.

Berrios in particular is interesting. He's still only 25. He and the team are fully focused on making the transition from excellent to elite, which would require a sturdier second half. One wonders how a shortened season might affect a pitcher who owned a 2.80 ERA through the end of July last year.

But, unless and until such a fortuitous development takes place, the Twins are plainly lacking a prototypical ace to match their contending counterparts in New York and Houston. This may not greatly hinder them in their goal of winning the division, but it's certainly a hurdle for getting over the hump in October (November, December... what have you).

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Twins have put themselves in very good position with starting pitching. They brought back key pieces from last year's group by re-signing Odorizzi and Pineda, added veteran depth with Bailey and Chacin, placed an exciting wild card in the deck with Hill, and found their impact pitching in the form of Maeda.

This plan might not live up to the hopes of those who clamored for the acquisition of a clear-cut No. 1 via trade or free agency, but such assets are in short supply, and Minnesota's front office did a helluva job improvising.

This is the deepest Twins starting pitching corps I can ever remember, complete with legitimate upside and high-caliber reinforcements. It's well crafted to support an elite offense and propel the team where it needs to go – especially if the rotation's burden is lessened by a robust bullpen that carries much of the load.

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