FORT MYERS, Fla. — On the first day of spring training for the Minnesota Twins, it was difficult to watch the drills on the field without thinking about the potential starting pitchers who weren’t there.
Twins pitchers and catchers held their first official workout on Wednesday, but there’s room for more.
“It’s not hard to see, even if you’re not trying, that we have a need, rotation-wise, where we will have to fill some spots,” manager Paul Molitor said.
The Twins in 2017 became the first team in major league history to reach the postseason after losing 100 or more games the year before. Molitor is the AL Manager of the Year award holder, entering his fourth season. There’s a strong nucleus of drafted-and-developed players who are entering their peak years.
The glaring omission, however, is a front-line starting pitcher or two to lead a rotation that was improved last season but still ranked just 19th in MLB with a collective 4.73 ERA. The tenuous depth was thinned further when Ervin Santana underwent surgery on his middle finger, which will keep him out until at least mid-April.
The Twins were uncharacteristically open about their interest in Yu Darvish, widely considered to be the best free agent pitcher available this winter, but he recently signed a six-year, $126 million contract with the Chicago Cubs. Free agent possibilities like Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn remain unsigned, though. Then there are potential targets like Chris Archer or Jake Odorizzi of the Tampa Bay Rays, but baseball’s trade market has been moving even slower than free agency.
Until a reinforcement or two arrives, the Twins must move forward with their in-house options to fill out the top five.
“I think we will just have to proceed with who you have,” Molitor said. “We know that there are a lot of people out there. We know that there are people we are still interested in so we can’t predict which way it’s going to go.”
The early absence of Santana leaves Jose Berrios, Kyle Gibson and Adalberto Mejia as the only holdovers who made at least 20 starts in 2017. Berrios, who had a breakout second season with a 14-8 record with a 3.89 ERA in 2017, will likely slide into the top spot for now. Santana, who was in New York for a follow-up visit with his surgeon, and Gibson, who was attending his salary arbitration hearing, were not on the field the first day at the CenturyLink Sports Complex.
The next two options are right-handers Phil Hughes, who’s recovering from a second straight rib surgery, and Tyler Duffey, the starter-turned-reliever who will now be stretched out as a starter again this spring. After making his major league debut late last season, the 6-foot-10 Aaron Slegers could receive consideration. Top prospects Stephen Gonsalves and Fernando Romero are also on the verge of becoming major leaguers. Trevor May will also be in the mix as he works his way back from Tommy John elbow surgery.
Fretting over Santana’s unexpected absence won’t do any good.
“That was a bit of an ugly hand,” Molitor said. “But we are going to get through that. It’s just one of those things, early in the year, that you want to get out of the gates relatively respectively. With the people we have now, we are going to have to make some adjustments.”
Molitor said the Twins are considering using a four-man rotation over the first month of the season since they’d only need two appearances from a fifth starter in April based on the timing off their off days.
Hughes carries the biggest question mark after being limited to 26 games over the past two seasons because of injuries, mostly to his shoulder as a result of thoracic outlet syndrome that required rib removal to alleviate the pain and weakness. Hughes went just 4-10 with a 5.92 ERA in 112 2/3 innings over the last two years.
“We are trying to remain as optimistic as we can about what he can potentially do and the role that he could fill,” Molitor said. “I would imagine he’d be kind of hungry to go out there and compete.”
Hughes, who had his latest surgery in mid-July, said he feels healthy again and remains on track for a normal, non-rehab throwing schedule for the first time in two years. He’s more than eager to be part of the 2018 team after missing out on the 2017 fun.
“It makes you hungry to get back to that point,” Hughes said. “I almost want to fast-forward through spring training. I’m really excited to get going and prove that I can be productive again. As fun as it was to see all the guys do well, selfishly, I want to be a big part of that and prove that I can get back to that point.”