Twins seek to fill holes in pitching rotation
FORT MYERS, Fla. — The Minnesota Twins have holes in their rotation and inexperience pitchers might fill them.
After a stagnant free-agent market this offseason that has carried over into the first week of camp, the Twins have been unable to land any of their top targets. Most recently left-handers Jason Vargas, who signed with the New York Mets on Friday and Jamie Garcia, who signed with the Blue Jays on Thursday.
With no outside additions, Aaron Slegers, Stephen Gonsalves, Felix Jorge and Fernando Romero will all have an opportunity to showcase themselves in big league camp. Any other season, this group would all be destined for the team’s Triple-A affiliate to start the season in Rochester. This season, however, there is a chance that one or more of them breaks camp in the rotation.
“I know there’s a ton of free agents still out there so I’m going about my business like I’ll be in Triple-A to start,” Gonsalves said. “But it definitely could be an opportunity.”
While talented, this group still has parts of their game that needs some refinement: Gonsalves is working on consistency with his curveball. The 6-foot-10 Slegers had trouble repeating his delivery. Jorge needs to keep the ball in the ballpark and Romero hasn’t started a game above the Double-A level. The trick for the Twins will be balancing development with the immediate needs.
“When the needs are imminent and you have to fill them, sometime you don’t always have the luxury of making sure a guy, in your own mind, is totally ready to fill that spot,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “It’s going to happen.”
The Twins had a recent success story filling a spot in their big league rotation with a young pitcher who might have needed a little more time in the minors in Jose Berrios, although it did come with some growing pains. After a brutal debut in 2016 in which he went 3-7 with an 8.02 ERA in 14 starts, Berrios had a breakout season in 2017, going 14-8 with a 3.89 ERA. At age 23, Berrios is in line to be this year’s Opening Day starter.
Molitor said he sees the merit to building up depth at Triple-A to allow prospects time to develop, but the idea is to win now.
“When we call down there, we are going to see who’s the best guy to give us a chance right now and it might be the guy that, OK, maybe he’s not ready, but he is our best chance,” he said. “You have to prioritize for the guy that might help you win a game in the short term, especially when it’s with pitching.”
Slegers, 25, would appear to be the front-runner of this group after making his ML debut in 2017. Like Berrios, Slegers’ career had a rocky start going 0-1 with a 6.46 ERA in his three late-season starts. He struck out nine and walked six in 15 1/3 innings. Now in his second big league spring training camp, the Indiana native has gotten some of those nerves out of the way.
“I got a lot of those firsts out of the way last year like my first spring training camp, my first start,” Slegers said. “Now I feel much more comfortable.”
Gonsalves, 23, is the team’s top-rated pitching prospect and fourth overall, according to Baseball America. He breezed through the minors, going 41-17 with a 2.39 ERA over six stops. Gonsalves would like to make a good impression early, but said he is trying to “dial back” from year’s past so that he is fresh when he is called upon.
“I’m trying not to come out too hot,” Gonsalves said. “I want to be stay healthy through the entire season.”
Jorge, 24, is in a similar position as Slegers having made his ML debut in 2017. He allowed nine runs in 7 2/3 innings thanks to four home runs. He went 10-3 with a 3.54 ERA in his 22 starts at Double-A last season. Romero, the team’s No. 6 overall prospect, could also see some time in the Minnesota rotation at some point this year after compiling a 2.85 ERA over his five minor league stops.
At the very least, the group should give the Twins depth throughout the season and possibly avoid being in a similar situation next spring.
“It’s probably a little hollow when you tell them it’s more important to be on the roster in September than it is in April but I try to give them the understanding that they want to try and be a piece that is establishing a postseason run,” Molitor said.