The Minnesota Twins’ quest for pitching has taken many twists and turns over the years. They’ve had flings with free-agent pickups, failed draft picks, and five-inning standing ovations at Target Field. Still, they haven’t had an ace to anchor their staff since trading away Johan Santana.
Not much has changed heading into the 2023 season. With no aces available on the market, the Twins have chosen to assemble a staff filled with a group of pitchers who are good but not great. Such a staff may be good enough to win the American League Central, but is it good enough to win a World Series?
The Twins staff isn’t going to make you think that’s possible. Acquiring Pablo López gives them another dependable arm. Fangraphs projects his ERA to be 3.77, which is better than most of the rotation posted a year ago. Still, he’s not a true ace.
Unfortunately, the Twins might not have any better options. Sonny Gray went 8-5 with a 3.08 one year ago, but his durability and projected 3.98 ERA suggest he’s better as a No. 2 or No. 3. Joe Ryan has the most upside of this group, but a 3.55 ERA and 147 innings pitched isn’t quite ace material.
Tyler Mahle (4.17 projected ERA), Bailey Ober (4.15), and Josh Winder (4.48) look like the same pitcher, and Kenta Maeda (4.11) is 35 years old and coming off Tommy John Surgery. Cole Sands and Louie Varland are also intriguing prospects, but nobody will inspire confidence that the Twins can win on any given night.
Barring a shocking trade, this staff is slightly above average, which puts them at a disadvantage compared to the World Series champions since 2002.
Most recently, the 2022 Houston Astros won the title with Justin Verlander leading the way. The 2021 Atlanta Braves were led by Max Fried, who has placed in the top five of Cy Young Award voting twice over the past three seasons. The 2020 Dodgers had Clayton Kershaw, the 2019 Nationals had Stephen Strasburg, and the 2018 Red Sox had Chris Sale.
But there are a couple of outliers the Twins could point to and believe they can compete.
2002 ANAHEIM ANGELS
The Angels had some pitchers perform like an ace, but high win totals could be a product of an era where teams let pitchers throw until they couldn’t. Jarrod Washburn served as a de facto ace for this staff, and Ramón Ortiz had one of the best years of his career, but the Angels’ success was rooted in their offense and bullpen.
Los Angeles ranked fourth with 5.25 runs per game that season and turned it over to a 20-year-old Francisco Rodriguez and Troy Percival, who racked up 50 saves during the regular season.
The Angels went 99-63 that year and eliminated the Twins in the ALCS on the way to their first World Series championship.
2013 BOSTON RED SOX
It’s strange to see a big-market team on this list because if they ever needed an ace, they could just go out and buy one. Lester was a homegrown leader of the pitching staff. But at this point, he hadn’t grown to be the ace he would be to help the Chicago Cubs win the World Series in 2016.
The rest of the rotation was filled with average starters. Lackey was a disappointment after signing a five-year, $82.5 million contract the previous offseason, while Ryan Dempster and Felix Doubront were middle-of-the-road starters at best. Clay Buchholz was the only Boston starter to record an ERA under 3.50, but his performance seemed to be a flash in the pan, similar to what Francisco Liriano was for the 2006 Twins.
In the end, the Red Sox offense made the difference. Boston led Major League Baseball with 5.27 runs per game and had Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia at the peak of their powers and David Ortiz. The bullpen had a death row of Andrew Miller, Craig Breslow, and Koji Uehara and the Red Sox won their third World Series since 2004.
2015 KANSAS CITY ROYALS
The Royals rotation was a mess, with several players struggling to perform or others in the early stages of their careers. Yordano Ventura was the only pitcher with ace potential in this group, who died in a 2017 car accident at age 25.
With the pitchers defining middle-of-the-road, the Royals turned their attention to building a lights-out bullpen. Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, and Wade Davis were homegrown flamethrowers, while free-agent acquisition Ryan Madson effectively shortened games to five innings. If the Royals were ahead by then, the game was basically over.
Kansas City also benefitted from a homegrown nucleus that included Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer, but the bullpen picked up the slack for their rotation.
HOW CAN THE TWINS REPLICATE THIS?
If there’s a common theme here, it’s that the rotation wasn’t the main reason for each team’s success. Instead, each team strengthened its offense or bullpen to fuel a championship run. When it comes to the Twins, you could make a case that they could do the same.
The Twins ranked 17th with 4.3 runs scored per game last season, but there’s reason to think that could improve. Carlos Correa had a turbulent first season in Minnesota before turning it on in the final weeks of the season and should be more comfortable in 2023. Byron Buxton could also have a better year if he returns to his 2021 line of .306/.358/.647 with 19 homers in 61 games. Joey Gallo should at least replace the power that Miguel Sanó should have brought to the lineup, and a young core that includes Jose Miranda and Alex Kirilloff should take a step forward now that they have solidified positions.
That leaves the bullpen, which ranked 16th with a 3.84 ERA but ranked eighth with 78 homers allowed. While the Twins haven’t made any major additions to this group, there is a case that it could rebound in 2023.
Jhoan Durán’s emergence gives the Twins a flamethrower to send to the mound in high-leverage situations, and it’s possible that Jorge Alcalá could have a similar impact after missing the entire 2022 season due to injury. Griffin Jax could also improve, while the Twins seem willing to cross their fingers until they break, hoping Emilio Pagán can stop serving up home runs.
This is a sunny-side-up position to take, considering three of the past 21 World Series champions have ridden this strategy to victory. But spring is a season for optimism, and if there’s a 14 percent chance, the Twins will gladly take it.