Over the past three years, the Minnesota Twins have assembled an entire starting rotation via the trade. Since 2020 the team has dealt for Kenta Maeda, Joe Ryan, Sonny Gray, Tyler Mahle, and Pablo López. Bailey Ober, drafted and developed by the Twins, will begin his season just across the river in Triple-A St. Paul.
Another notable absence in this rotation is a classic “Number Five” starter. Notorious for adding a Dylan Bundy, Matt Shoemaker, or Homer Bailey type in recent years, the Twins will instead rely on their depth to pitch those innings. Behind Ober are Louie Varland and Simeon Woods Richardson, both of whom made their MLB debut in 2022. And behind them are Jordan Balazovic, Randy Dobnak, and Brent Headrick, among others.
These differences are more than a microcosm of the systemic changes happening within the organization, one with a long tradition of pitching the Twins Way™. Partly a result of the challenges associated with attracting top-tier free agents to Minneapolis, nonetheless this has quickly yet quietly become perhaps the best starting rotation in the Target Field era. Although still without a “true ace,” the team’s catching and defense are strengths, so could these five starters be the best rotation in a generation or more?
A ten-year veteran, Sonny Gray (33 on Opening Day) will make $12.7MM in the final year of his current deal. Gray was acquired from the Cincinnati Reds last March, in exchange for right-handed pitching prospect Chase Petty.
Since being traded from the Yankees to the Reds, Sonny Gray has been an above-average pitcher, both in Cincinnati and Minnesota. In 2019 he received NL Cy Young Award votes and continued to pitch effectively through the shortened 2020 season. His last year in Cincinnati was somehow his worst since pitching in New York, but following the trade to the Twins, he bounced back to pitch nearly as well as he did in 2019, albeit in fewer innings.
Although velocity is in decline at this point of his career, Gray was at least a little lucky in 2022. He missed fewer bats than ever, but limited hard contact (78th percentile Barrel%) and walks. Hitters were making more contact, but not doing enough damage. As a result, Gray outperformed his expected stats en route to a 2.4 WAR season.
Heading into 2023 it seems the formula for Sonny Gray will be much of the same: avoid putting men on base and avoid giving up the long ball. Strikeouts may be harder to come by, so a strong defense behind him could help Gray outperform the 2023 projections the way he did his expected stats a season ago.
Simply based off recent performance and current projections, an encore in 2023 would be a good outcome for Sonny Gray and the Twins. If he can find a way to miss bats at closer to the league-average rate, Gray easily slots in at the front of a playoff rotation. If not, staying healthy for 150 innings (give or take) would be plenty.
In positive news already, Gray shut out the Royals through five innings in his season debut – though he did struggle with command, walking four while only striking out one.
After spending the first five years of his career in Miami, Pablo López (27 on Opening Day) will make $5.45MM his first year in Minnesota and remains under team control through the 2024 season. In exchange for López, infield prospect José Salas, and outfield prospect Byron Chourio, the Twins traded All-Star, Luis Arráez.
Throughout his career in Miami, Pablo López has demonstrated an ability to improve year after year. He had a mini breakout season in 2020 and built on that success into 2021. Last season, however, he couldn’t sustain his hot start, yet still reached a career-high in innings pitched. Despite a relatively down season, he was worth more wins above replacement than any of the Twins’ 2022 starters.
López’s career-high 180 innings, which was 27th most in MLB, and 33 more than any Twins starter threw. Unfortunately, loud contact was a small problem (19th percentile Barrel%), but 2022 was more of an outlier, and positive regression would mean better results.
For Pablo López to find success in 2023 the key will be to limit hard contact. In his breakout 2020 season, over half the batted balls against him were hit on the ground. In 2022 as the launch angle trended upward, so did the barrel rate. Keeping the ball on the ground should result in a season that compares to 2020 better than 2022.
The method may be ill-advised, but using past performances to project Pablo López’s future, it’s reasonable to expect a better season than last year’s. Minnesota’s 2023 Opening Day starter also has the potential to start Game One of a postseason series, but whether or not the Twins make the playoffs will largely depend on López.
Much like Gray, there is an early positive report here for López, who struck out eight Royals in 5.2 innings on Opening Day last week.
Kenta Maeda (34 on Opening Day) is the oldest pitcher in the Twins’ rotation plans, though he’ll earn a modest $3.12MM in the final year of his contract. Back in 2020, Maeda, catching prospect Jair Camargo, and $10MM cash were acquired from the Dodgers in exchange for right-handed reliever Brusdar Graterol, outfield prospect Luke Raley, and a 2020 draft pick (Clayton Beeter).
During his first year in Minnesota, the shortened 2020 season, Kenta Maeda was magnificent. Runner-up to Shane Bieber for the AL Cy Young Award, Maeda gave the Twins everything they could have hoped for when they swapped a top pitching prospect for him. However, in 2021, he was not the same pitcher and finished the season on the injured list following Tommy John surgery. As a result, he missed all of 2022 while recovering, but is now reportedly 100% ready to go for Opening Day.
Without a 2022 season to look back on, Maeda is the biggest wild card of the bunch. High velocity wasn’t really a part of his game, so unless he’s throwing batting practice, there’s little to worry about in that regard.
The main difference between Kenta Maeda’s 2020 and 2021 seasons was opposing hitters getting on base. In the short season, he hardly let anyone on, but only a year later his walk rate nearly doubled and he was giving up 9 H/9. We’ve seen just how dominant he is when he gets batters out, and how it goes sideways when he can’t.
The fact is, Kenta Maeda is the oldest pitcher in the Twins’ rotation, and coming off of Tommy John surgery, so the expectations are obviously tempered. The Twins know better than to try to squeeze too many innings from him, but even the 70-80 projected above, for about 1.0 WAR, or more would certainly suffice. Just like with the Dodgers, Maeda could also be used out of the bullpen, especially in a playoff run.
Maeda will make his season debut against the Marlins on Tuesday.
Last season’s big trade deadline acquisition, Tyler Mahle (28 on Opening Day) will make $7.5MM as an impending free agent. Striking another deal with the Reds, the Twins acquired Mahle in exchange for infield prospects Spencer Steer and Christian Encarnacion-Strand, and left-handed pitching prospect Steve Hajjar.
Similar to López, Tyler Mahle had a mini breakout season in 2020 and followed it up with an incredibly strong 2021 season. Unfortunately for Mahle, his 2022 season was a step backward, due to injury or otherwise. Though he was roughly league average overall, his four starts in Minnesota left something to be desired.
Maybe the biggest red flag for Mahle was a sudden and drastic decrease in fastball velocity, that preceded stints on the Injured List, including the one that ended his 2022 season. He was hit hard last year, specifically after the trade to Minnesota. The hope is that his shoulder injury was the cause and the offseason.
Last season fell apart for Tyler Mahle because of his shoulder, but after spending the offseason resting and strengthening, the plan forward is consistency. Even before coming to Minnesota in a deadline deal, he was having a down season, but to reproduce numbers like the two prior seasons, health and consistency are key.
The projections suggest that Mahle will likely hover just above career averages, which over the course of a full, healthy season equals roughly 2.0 WAR. As long as he can stay off the Injured List, he will almost certainly throw more innings in 2023, but 160 innings at a 3.80 ERA would be a terrific bounce-back year.
Mahle will make his season debut against the Marlins tonight.
After leading the Twins in innings pitched—as a rookie no less—Joe Ryan (26 on Opening Day) is also still pre-arbitration eligible, and under team control through the 2027 season. In 2021 the Twins acquired Ryan alongside right-handed pitching prospect Drew Strotman in exchange for designated hitter Nelson Cruz and right-handed pitching prospect Calvin Faucher.
Just over a month after being acquired, Joe Ryan made his MLB debut in Minneapolis on September 1st, 2021. For the remainder of 2021 and through 2022, the rookie was possibly the Twins’ most reliable starter.
Although he doesn’t give up an incredible amount of hard contact, he’s served up a few long balls and does walk more batters than he should. But Ryan has been trending up as he approaches 200 total innings at the MLB level. Even a slight decrease in walks and home runs should pay dividends in his development.
Ryan makes a living with his fastball, but after spending some time at Driveline this offseason, he hopes to have at least a couple of decent secondary pitches to pair with the heater. To succeed in 2023, there’s not really anything he needs to do differently, but rather keep improving through experience. He’s been an above-average starter since his debut, but maybe a refined slider and splitter will be tools he uses to unlock that next level.
At first glance, these projections look a little weak for someone like Joe Ryan, who’s been an MLB-caliber pitcher since his debut. To continue building on a strong start to his career, striving for career highs in innings pitched and strikeouts, and reducing the number of batters walked should be plenty.
Ryan gave up just one run in six innings of work in his season debut, striking out six hitters – but also surrendering one home run.
Playoffs or Bust
Without a dominant ace at the head of the rotation, the ceiling for this group isn’t as high as some of the other teams around the league, or even within the division. However, since opening Target Field in 2010 the Twins have never rolled out a 5-man staff as deep as this one. Going back even further to find one that compares takes us to 2006 when Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano looked like the 1-2 punch of the future. This season, it goes five (or more) deep:
- Pablo López
- Sonny Gray
- Joe Ryan
- Tyler Mahle
- Kenta Maeda
- Bailey Ober (AAA)
- Simeon Woods Richardson (AAA)
- Louie Varland (AAA)
- Chris Paddack (60-Day IL; Second Half Return?)
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the 2022 season, it’s that health should never be taken for granted. That said, the rotation is set, and for Twins fans, the rostered talent is more than welcome, it’s long overdue.
How the 2023 season will end is yet to be determined, but there’s reason for optimism in the Twin Cities. The Cleveland Guardians are still the team to beat, but a well-rounded squad like the Twins has as good a shot as anyone to take the AL Central crown.
Led by a rotation with depth and potential, this could finally be the year Twins fans have been waiting for.
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