Who steps up if Twins don't make a move to improve rotation?

The Twins have some depth, but they should really add a pitcher.
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Devin Smeltzer

Nearly three months into the MLB "Hot Stove" season, the Minnesota Twins have not made a move to improve their pitching staff. While they did retain Jake Odorizzi with a qualifying offer and re-signed Michael Pineda to a two-year deal, the Twins have been eerily silent throughout the free-agent process.

With the options to improve a starting rotation that wasn't bad in the first couple months of the season and cratered once the calendar turned to August, many people are anticipating the Twins to dive into the trade market to acquire an impact arm. But what if the Twins don't make a move?

This would be a tremendous blunder by the Twins front office, but it's not a scenario that should be ruled out. We all expected the Twins to make a signing in free agency just like we expected the Twins to make a trade to bolster their rotation at the trade deadline last July. 

If Derek Falvey and Thad Levine deem the price too steep for an impact arm, they'll have to roll with what they have and hope for the best. Fortunately, there are several options that could be intriguing in the opening months before the Twins have another opportunity to tweak it later in the season.

The current rotation

Before wondering who could step up, we have to take into account the current state of the Twins rotation. While it's not great and looks similar to what the Twins trotted out last season, the two weakest links are gone as Kyle Gibson signed with the Texas Rangers and Martin Perez had his 2020 option declined before signing with the Boston Red Sox.

That leaves Odorizzi, Pineda and Jose Berrios as the three starters that are penned into the rotation barring injury.

In the case of Berrios, the Twins will be looking for more consistency from their best starter. Prior to the trade deadline, the right-hander looked the part of an ace and even caused Craig Edwards of FanGraphs to put him in the mix for the AL Cy Young Award last June. 

After posting a 10-5 record and a 2.80 ERA in his first 22 starts, it may have been understandable why the Twins didn't feel a need to overpay for an ace at the deadline. The wheels came off from there, however, as Berrios went 4-3 with a 5.83 ERA in his final 10 starts. Such has been the story as the 25-year old has struggled throughout his career in the first half as opposed to the second half.

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If Berrios can figure out how to sustain his performance throughout a full season, he should be able to develop into a true top-of-the-rotation pitcher, but the issues lie within the two pitchers behind him. 

Odorizzi thrived under pitching coach Wes Johnson and outside of a rough July that included a 7.43 ERA, he earned the qualifying offer that keeps him in Minnesota for 2020.

The wild card will be Michael Pineda, who went 9-3 with a 3.46 ERA after May 1, but also was slapped with a 60-game suspension for violating MLB's performance-enhancing drugs policy. With 39 games remaining on his suspension, the Twins actually only have two starters in their rotation at the moment. That means that even if the Twins do make a move, someone will have to step up and fill in that back end in the first month of action.

The familiar faces

The crazy part about the Twins is they actually have more organizational depth in the pitching department than they had this time a year ago. While none of those names match the "impact pitching" that the Twins sought to acquire at the beginning of the winter, there are a bunch of arms that could be short-term solutions.

One of those names could be Randy Dobnak, who stepped up in a big way in the final weeks of the 2019 season. Although the last time we saw the right-hander he was being taunted by Yankees fans for previously being Uber driver, he showed he can be effective in a pinch, posting a 2-1 record and a 2.21 ERA in the month of September.

The only issue was that Dobnak's BABIP was an unsustainable .236 during that stretch and was set to flames during his Game 2 start against the Yankees in the ALDS. The Twins will have to decide if they want Dobnak to continue to start or be a piece of the bullpen, but his splits were much better as a starter in 2019.

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Finally, Devin Smeltzer will be a name to watch after a successful rookie campaign in 2019. As a pitcher that relies on location thanks to a fastball that averaged 89.1 mph and was thrown 45.8% of the time, per FanGraphs. What helped the 24-year-old was the movement on his pitches with spin rates that ranked in the 81st percentile for his curveball and 87th percentile for his fastball, according to Baseball Savant.

A 34.4% chase rate for Smeltzer is respectable and his 6.9 K/9 rate should improve closer to the roughly 9.0 rate he accumulated in the minor leagues. 

Another option is Lewis Thorpe, who also made a cameo in 2019 and put up an overall stat line (3-2, 6.18 ERA in 12 games and two starts) that was pretty ugly. His peripheral numbers showed promise, however, with a 10.1 K/9 rate, 3.10 K/BB ratio and an 11.8% swinging-strike rate, per FanGraphs. While it's not ideal, it would be interesting to see what the left-hander can do with a larger sample size.

Some names to remember

The biggest reason why the Twins shouldn't rely on these pitchers is that they need a legitimate stopgap for some of their arms coming through the system. Three starting pitchers currently rank in MLB Pipeline's Top 10 prospects in the Twins organization and with Brusdar Graterol the only one with major league experience, it would be best not to rush any of these arms to the majors.

Graterol is the one name that Twins fans will remember from last season as they tried to use him as a secret weapon in the bullpen. While his overall numbers (1-1, 4.66 ERA) weren't mind-blowing by any means, his fastball did the trick averaging 99 mph. 

As enticing as it would be to turn Graterol loose out of the gate, he has only pitched over 100 innings once in his career and his next closest number was  the61 innings he threw last year thanks to a shoulder impingement. He remains a bright part of the Twins future but is probably best served to get some time at Triple-A Rochester.

The duo of Jhoan Duran and Jordan Balazovic are also names to keep an eye on as both players enjoyed a breakout 2019 season. Balazovic made a trip to the MLB Futures Game last July with an 8-5 record and a 2.69 ERA between Low-A Cedar Rapids and High-A Fort Myers, but also carried a ridiculous 12.1 K/9 rate during those stops. 

The bad news is that the 21-year-old has never thrown a pitch above High-A and may be more of a prospect for the 2021 season.

Duran is also intriguing thanks to a fastball that reaches toward the 100 mph barrier and a K/9 rate of 10.6. Unfortunately, he too might be a ways away from the majors as he posted a 4.86 ERA at Double-A Pensacola in seven starts.

Conclusion

If the Twins go into the 2020 season with a rotation of Berrios, Odorizzi, Pineda and two of the names on this list, they're going to be in trouble. One of the biggest things a team can have is depth within their starting pitching staff and by acquiring a major league arm, some of these pitchers can develop and be fully ready when they get the call.

If there's one thing to take out of this, it's that the Twins have some quality arms they can use in a pinch. But they still need one or two reliable arms to put them over the hump. If the front office makes a deal, this will be a team that can stay atop the AL Central in 2020. If not, the Twins could be wasting a golden opportunity.

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