5 Thoughts: A 2022 starting rotation for the Twins starts with September

Kenta Maeda, Joe Ryan, Randy Dobnak -- this one is all pitching focused with an eye on mapping out the 2022 starting rotation for the Minnesota Twins.

What will the Twins’ starting rotation look like in April 2022? I can honestly say that I don’t know. I have my own ideas. And I’ve watched and observed the way they think about their stable of pitchers. So I have my early guesses — and it involves bringing in two pitchers from the outside — but I can’t say with certainty what they’ll do.

Given that, as my Twins Radio colleague Cory Provus put it last week, addressing the pitching staff is job 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 this winter, I’ve made this newsletter entirely focused on starting pitching with an eye to the future.

This column presents 5 Thoughts on Twins starting pitching.

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1) Kenta Maeda and his Tommy John surgery, with a twist

Kenta Maeda had surgery Wednesday, and there’s some optimism that it may not wipe out his full 2022 season. 

Maeda had Tommy John surgery Wednesday. That return timeline is typically more than a year, and more like a year and a half in some cases. (Chris Sales’s recent return was after 17 months; Michael Pineda, to use a Twins example, had his TJ surgery in July 2017 and was back to start a late-March game for the Twins in 2019, although a separate injury and the timing of the end of the season probably pushed that one back.) 

Unlike Pineda’s operation, though, the type of repair that Maeda had done was slightly modified. The term “Tommy John surgery” of course comes from former MLB pitcher Tommy John, who had an ulnar collateral ligament replaced in his elbow. For the sake of the squeamish among us -- and the author -- I will gloss over the exact medical details but please know that the curious can pretty easily find them online if you so desire. (If you’d like you can email me and I’ll share a link with you.) That one procedure is responsible for prolonging the careers of many pitchers since that famous operation on Mr. John, and it’s added untold number of competitive innings after an injury that in times gone by would have simply ended a big league career. So I think you could argue that it’s done an amazing service for the level of competition in MLB, and for that we owe a debt of gratitude to the medical progress. 

Still, it’s easy to wonder if there are better ways to keep pitchers healthy -- or to return them to health -- than the things we’re doing today or have done for the past few decades. I don’t know if there is, and if there is I certainly don’t have the answer. But I appreciate the spirit of what has happened to Maeda in this case.

It might be a sign of medical progress, or it might turn out to not work exactly as planned. We’ll have to wait and see. Maeda, in addition to the typical TJ procedure, has had a brace inserted around his ligament by Dr. Keith Meister, with the hope that the internal brace will allow his new ligament a quicker recovery and strengthening timeline. At least that’s my understanding. 

Derek Falvey said this week that unlike a typical TJ recovery timeline, there is some thought that Maeda could be back on a mound in 9-10 months. When you include the ramp up to competition period, that wouldn’t quite have Maeda back for a full half-season next year. Still, it allows us to set an optimistic or “blue sky” time frame on this. In my head, I’m considering Maeda’s return to pitch for the Twins around the 2022 trade deadline at the end of July. 

We talked last week about how missing Maeda for a full year could indeed be the domino that tips and leads to a pivot away from trying earnestly to contend in 2022. So does returning for two months in a blue-sky scenario do enough to materially change your thought of next year’s rotation? I will hear arguments for both sides of that discussion. 

Of course there are no guarantees of a successful return with the surgery, but the odds do appear to be good. And we can find examples of good pitchers who never quite were the same -- like Francisco Liriano or Scott Baker -- but also plenty of examples where following the prescribed rest a top-level pitcher was able to return to that top level. Sale is a recent example that comes to mind. Data will be more valuable than anecdotes, it’s worth noting. However, I haven’t found a place the cleanly collects information on the type of surgery vs. outcome to be able to share a good idea about the return-to-peak prospects for Maeda after this Tommy John With a Brace. 

“I would say I’m hopeful for sure based on the feedback, the way the surgery went and the potential return timelines,” Derek Falvey told reporters this week. “I am hopeful. Obviously, these things, you have to see how the rehab goes. If everything goes according to plan, I’m hopeful that he’s pitching some point next year. Assuming everything goes according to plan, you give yourself a chance to be on the more aggressive end of that return [timeline].”

Fun fact: Paul Molitor is the first player to have TJ surgery and go on to baseball’s Hall of Fame. 


2) Joe Ryan made his debut start for the Twins this week on the day Maeda had his surgery. 

Ryan could have been held out for a weekend series against his former club, the Rays, but considering the high-powered offense and the heightened storyline that was bound to take place in the city that traded him away just 6 weeks earlier, I think it was a good idea to go with the relatively lower-pressure environment and weaker hitting Chicago Cubs. 

Ryan and Randy Dobnak, back from a rehab assignment, turned out to be the two September call-ups, so tough luck for the other 5 guys that I wrote about as possibilities last week. (Having already made two more roster moves since those call-ups, adding back two more pitchers, it remains to be seen if there will be more wheel turning with the roster this month.)

The rookie acquired in the Nelson Cruz trade looked good in his debut, and the lone bad moment would be the 3-run homer that technically cost the Twins the game. I say technically because they lost 3-0 to the Cubs, though the offense had only 2 hits and still left 5 runners on base against Chicago’s two rookie pitchers, Justin Steele and Adbert Alzolay.  I wouldn’t fault Ryan for the loss, though. He pitched 5 innings and gave up those 3 runs in the 3rd; his other 4 frames were perfect innings, 12 up and 12 down. He finished with 1 walk and 5 strikeouts, and 60 of his 89 pitches went for strikes, a shade over two-thirds. That’s a small sample of hitters faced and Ryan struck out 26% of them, as opposed to fanning exactly half the hitters he faced in his two starts with Triple-A St. Paul. 

I asked his old pitching coach, Rick Knapp of Triple-A Durham, what makes Ryan’s fastball so special. After all, it’s not like he’s getting those strikeouts by throwing in the upper-90’s. Ryan’s debut fastball was more in the 90-93 mph range.

“Joe has a couple things that really make him unique,” Knapp told me. “You’ve got a guy that hides the ball at an elite level. You’ve got a guy that gets extreme extension. You’ve got a guy that carries the ball -- what you would see as ‘normal’ -- and then the carry number isn’t what you would expect. So, if you’re an opposing team and you see the flat-out numbers it’s easy to go, ‘Well, this guy’s just striking out guys, [we should] just lay off the high pitch.’

“But when the high pitch looks like it’s, you know, belt-buckle high and it ends up chest-high, you’re wondering, scratching your head going, ‘How did I miss that?’” Knapp said.

I certainly don’t expect him to be a 50% strikeout rate guy with an ERA in the 3’s in the Majors, especially not early in his career as he’s still developing a changeup and figuring out his breaking pitches, a slider and curve that eventually should play well off his fastball up. With Triple-A Durham before the trade he showed more like a 35% strikeout rate, which is still awfully good for a starting pitcher.

Notably, of Ryan’s 89 pitches in his debut with the Twins, he threw about 70% fastballs, and the number to highlight here is that Cubs hitters swung and missed 9 times at the 4-seamer. For reference, former Twins target Zack Wheeler ranks first in the Majors in getting swings and misses on his fastball (189 whiffs on heaters in 27 starts, an average of 7 per start). Robbie Ray is first in the A.L. with 185, or 6.85 fastball swings and misses per start.

With the new rotation lineup that the Twins are using, you should see Ryan again Wednesday night in Cleveland. 

3) Speaking of the new rotation, let’s draw things out for the rest of the way. 

Monday @ Cleveland: Bailey Ober starts, and Michael Pineda is expected to appear in relief in his return from an oblique injury after no rehab assignment. Pineda was activated Monday at the expense of reliever Ian Gibault, who was optioned to the minor leagues.

Here’s my guess:

Tuesday @ Cleveland: John Gant
Wednesday @ Cleveland: Joe Ryan
Thursday @ Cleveland: Randy Dobnak
Friday vs. KC: Griffin Jax 
Saturday vs. KC: Michael Pineda
Sunday vs. KC: Bailey Ober
Monday @ Yankees: John Gant
Tuesday game 1 vs. Cleveland: Joe Ryan
Tuesday game 2 vs. Cleveland: Randy Dobnak

NOTE: In doubleheaders earlier this year, teams were allowed to add an extra player for the day, a 27th man, in addition to their typical 26-man roster. Sometimes that would be an extra reliever for a coverage or even a starter for one of the games. However, in September that extra allowance is gone because all rosters have expanded to 28 players, no more or fewer. 

Wednesday vs. Cleveland: Griffin Jax
Thursday: Off day

Podcast: Sunday’s Twins Today show guests include former Twins minor league pitching coordinator Rick Knapp, St. Paul Saints hitting coach Matt Borgschulte, and Kris Atteberry.

Andrew Albers had been part of this mix, making it a rare 7-man rotation. But Albers was optioned this weekend after getting beat up by a great Rays offense. My personal opinion is that depending on how Gant and Jax perform, the Twins might as well continue to give them starts for two reasons. The first is that they’re pitchers who could factor into the plan for next year’s staff, so you might as well learn as much as you can about them in these final weeks of the season. Secondly, it allows a buttress of sorts to the rotation, thereby allowing space between outings for a recently returned Dobnak and more importantly a strict-pitch-count Ober. 

I have my own interpretation of the penciled-in starting rotation for next April, which currently has 3 names in it and two vacancies, followed by two “waves” of support from the minor leagues. For now we’ll leave that alone and gather as much info as we can over the final month of the season. 

4) The Twins have had internal discussions about a creative deployment of their pitchers next year. 

What does that mean, getting creative?

Thad Levine shed some light on the club’s internal conversation this weekend when he spoke on Inside Twins. Here’s what he said:

“We have this stable of young starting pitchers, most of whom haven’t really established themselves in the big leagues, some of whom have. We’ve seen down the stretch here a few of them dip their toes in the water and really show some promise. I think we have this encouraging group of players that we think that we could bring a lot of guys to the big leagues … all of whom are capable of giving you 3, 4 innings or more,” Levine said. “And when you harken back to some of the most successful starting pitchers in the game, a lot of them did break in as relievers in these multi-inning relief roles and then kind of matured into the starting rotation.”

“We’re just trying to think of every strategic way to create competitive advantages in our starting rotation. The fact that we have this group, this wave of starting pitchers coming and then a wave right behind them, gives us the latitude to be creative in this light. Also if we’re going to be completely honest, we don’t have guys who are clearly penned in to be in our starting rotation next year. [We do have] a few who are trying to be solidified in those positions, but the competition is pretty wide open for us right now,” Levine said.

Interesting. More from Thad in a moment. First some context about what he’s talking about, or at least the way I think about it. A typical starter is counted on for something like 180 innings in a year. Some will pitch more, some will miss time and pitch less. But if you’ve got a dependable guy in the rotation, like a José Berríos, I tend to think of 180 innings being covered (out of a possible 1,450 or so). Meanwhile, a dependable closer who pitches for the full season, say a Taylor Rogers in a normal year, would be about 70 innings. Quickly, this highlights the great value of having a great starting pitcher covering 12% of your team innings, but equally it shows that a shutdown guy with an ERA that starts with a 2 can be a great boost for the 5% of innings a reliever could cover. 

But why can’t there be a middle ground? Other than logistical roster difficulty, is there anything stopping a pitcher from throwing multiple innings a couple times per week, and finishing the year with, say, 100 innings? That’d be about 4 innings per week, and while we know a traditional reliever workload would not allow for that because of the rest requirement between outings, it does seem like a plausible workload given what starters are expected to do in a year. 

The mental hurdle that comes when trying to piece together a 2022 Twins pitching staff is pretty simple. How can you be confident that any starting pitcher will throw 180 innings? Name one pitcher in the organization right now that you feel confident with 180 as a benchmark for next year. 

And so all the more reason to think creatively -- and, importantly, to supplement without outside pitching additions through free agency or trades -- if you intend to compete next year. 

“We feel confident in just the numbers that we have down in the minor leagues,” Levine continued. “And we’re also going to be active on the free agent market; this isn’t just to suggest that we’re going to turn it over to the young guys and not try to complement them with the right types of veterans. I think we’re just less fixated on the notion that we have to go get 3, 4, 5 established starters this offseason. We’re going to get a few but then we’re going to balance them out with the wealth of our farm system, which right now at the upper levels seems to be our starting pitchers.” 

5) Is Randy Dobnak in the plan going forward?

Well, you’d think so. As evidenced by the Twins giving him a 5-year contract worth a minimum of $9.25 million. Of course, that was in spring training when Dobnak had about 50 MLB innings and a career 3.12 ERA. 

Even if you thought it was likely that his career ERA would be higher than that, it looked like a relatively low-risk gamble for the Twins. And apparently an appealing move for Dobnak, getting some security financially in exchange for the possibility of higher earning potential the next few years. Not too bad for perhaps the most successful Utica Unicorn in history, from a the United Shore Professional Baseball League [Indy ball] to a long-term big league contract.

This year has gone about as bad it could have, with approximately 50 innings and a 7.64 ERA, punctuated by a finger injury -- similar to the one Taylor Rogers suffered -- that has kept Dobnak out since mid-June. 

Now, he’s back in the rotation, made his first start Friday against the world-beating Rays, and pitched a career-high 7 innings. That came with 6 hits, 5 earns runs, all in two innings, and only 2 strikeouts on the night. But two notes of encouragement: Dobnak got 15 ground balls in his 7 innings of work, and he pulled the old “settled down” trick, retiring the final 15 hitters he faced after the 5 runs had scored in the 2nd and 3rd innings. 

As for the original question, Dobnak is written in my 2022 pitching plans, and I think he ought to be in the Twins’ as well. True, the contract is not so huge that you couldn’t afford to walk away from it -- it’s a final guarantee of less than $10 million, after all -- more than $1 million less than the Twins are paying Andrelton Simmons this year for his “contributions.”

But the mere fact that the Twins were willing to sign a contract with Dobnak that would have him on the payroll until at least 2025 is at least an indication that they believe in him. And besides, as contracts go, this one is so early on that an injury-suppressed year should not turn your prior beliefs on their head. Let’s see how September plays out for him. 

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