Minnesota Twins positional recap and predictions, part 7: Starting rotation

OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 23: Kyle Gibson #44 of the Minnesota Twins pitches against the Oakland Athletics in the bottom of the first inning at Oakland Alameda Coliseum on September 23, 2018 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 23: Kyle Gibson #44 of the Minnesota Twins pitches against the Oakland Athletics in the bottom of the first inning at Oakland Alameda Coliseum on September 23, 2018 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /
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Minnesota Twins
OAKLAND, CA – SEPTEMBER 23: Kyle Gibson #44 of the Minnesota Twins pitches against the Oakland Athletics in the bottom of the first inning at Oakland Alameda Coliseum on September 23, 2018 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

Almost there! Tune in to the second to last part of a position by position recap of the 2018 Minnesota Twins season while we check out the starters.

In case you’ve missed any previous articles in this ongoing series, here are links to what we’ve previously covered, as we go position by position recapping the Minnesota Twins’ 2018 season and looking forward to 2019:

  1. Catchers
  2. First basemen
  3. Second basemen
  4. Shortstops
  5. Third basemen
  6. Outfielders

The Minnesota Twins used 16 different starting pitchers this season- Jose Berrios, Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi, Lance Lynn, Fernando Romero, Kohl Stewart, Gabriel Moya, Trevor May, Tyler Duffey, Stephen Gonsalves, Ervin Santana, Adalberto Mejia, Zack Littell, Chase De Jong, Aaron Slegers, and Phil Hughes. That’s a lot of names, but we’ll try to break it down and work through in enough detail to get a solid idea of how things went both on an individual and team level.

2018 recap

Rather than work through the season in a chronological order as I have with past positions, I believe it’ll work better to group similar players together and go over their seasons together before moving on to the next group. We’ll start off with the core of the rotation, Berrios, Gibson, and Odorizzi.

The trio anchored the rotation for the season, totaling 553.1 innings between them. For the first time in quite a while, there is some debate over who had the best season in the rotation. Berrios took another step forward, becoming just the 8th pitcher in Twins history to total 200 strikeouts in a season. He faded a little bit down the stretch, posting ERAs of 4.74 and 4.40 in August and September respectively, but to that point, he had shown more consistency and continued to display why he could be the next top young pitcher in the game.

Gibson, meanwhile, broke through in a big way, posting career bests in innings pitched, ERA, strikeouts, and many more. While he didn’t strike out as many batters as Berrios, he finished with a better ERA and finally rewarded the Minnesota Twins for their patience. He had shown brilliance at times throughout his major league career but had always struggled to find the consistency that would help him be a higher quality major league pitcher. Gibson finally found it in 2018 and was arguably the best pitcher on the team.

While Jake Odorizzi still provided some quality innings, it was a disappointing season by his standards. After coming over in a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays, Odorizzi struggled a bit in going deeper into games, oftentimes running out of gas before the 6th inning. Still, he provided consistency for a Minnesota Twins rotation that has been anything but consistent for the past decade.

In fact, 2018 marked the first time three Twins starters pitched more than 160 innings in the same season since 2010 when Carl Pavano, Liriano, Scott Baker, and Nick Blackburn all topped the mark. At 28 years old and with 1 year of team control left, Odorizzi will be back in the rotation next season and attempt to get back closer to his career averages.

Let’s shift our focus a bit to an all-too-familiar theme of Minnesota Twins starters that don’t live up to their expectations, with Lance Lynn, Phil Hughes, and Ervin Santana.

Lynn joined the rotation in early March after becoming one of several free agents to sign very late in the year. He agreed to a 1-year, $12 million contract and slotted into the middle of the rotation. Things didn’t quite work out. He totaled about 100 innings and a 5.10 ERA before the Twins were (somehow) able to send him to the New York Yankees for a package including Tyler Austin. The front office deserves props for trying him out, as he was one of the top free agent SPs on the market last year, but his tenure with the Twins didn’t go as planned.

The oft-injured Phil Hughes was another Twins pitcher that departed in 2018. Following two “meh” starts and a handful of bullpen appearances, the team traded him to the San Diego Padres in which ultimately was a salary dump. Hughes was owed around $13 million in 2018 and 2019 each before becoming a free agent in 2020. Minnesota ate his 2018 salary, but was able to get the Padres to pick up $7.25 million of his 2019 salary, leaving the Twins responsible for just under $6 million next year. Hughes would go on to pitch just 20.2 innings for the Padres in 2018, again totaling an ERA above 6.00.

There were high hopes for Ervin Santana following his stellar 2017 season, but he didn’t come close to reaching any of them. After a lingering finger injury kept him out of action until late July, Santana lasted just 5 starts before being shut down for the season. None of those 5 starts were very inspiring either, as he totaled a 8.03 ERA over 24.2 innings. Unsurprisingly, the Minnesota Twins announced in late August that they would not pick up Santana’s 2019 option, instead buying out the remaining year of his contract for $1 million.

By this point, we’ve covered 123 of the Minnesota Twins’ 162 starts in 2018. The remaining starts were covered by 10 different starters, most all of which are young and still getting their feet wet in the MLB. We won’t touch on all 10 guys here as there’s not a whole lot to say about a few of the guys that only got a start or two, but I do want to mention a couple more, starting with Fernando Romero.

Romero was called up early on in the season and got his MLB debut on May 2nd against the Toronto Blue Jays. He pitched great, giving up just 4 hits in 5.2 shutout innings. He followed that up with a dominant outing against the St. Louis Cardinals in his second career start, striking out 9 and allowing just 3 hits in 6 shutout innings. A 1.2 inning, 8 run outing against the Kansas City Royals would ruin what had been a stellar first month in the MLB, and his numbers tapered off a bit in June before being sent back down to the minors, only making 1 more spot start for the Minnesota Twins in the remainder of the season, but it was an exciting introduction to Romero for Twins fans everywhere.

While Stephen Gonsalves had received the majority of the attention given to prospect pitching, Romero was the first to debut this year and showed why he has the highest upside of any of the team’s pitchers to make their debut this season. He had reached his innings limit by September, preventing him from getting another call up for the final month of the year, but he should be back in the running for a slot in the rotation in 2019.

Lastly, I want to spend a short time talking about a new strategy the Twins tested out this year, the opener. After Gonsalves and Kohl Stewart made their first MLB starts and had limited success, the team decided to try out the opener strategy for both of them. The change in production was stunning. Without an opener, Gonsalves posted an 11.90 ERA, while Stewart totaled a 6.70 ERA. With an opener, their ERAs dropped to a minuscule 1.48 and 1.34 ERA respectively. While the small sample size is important to note, this difference is incredible.

The Tampa Bay Rays were the first team to embrace the strategy this year, and the Twins were rewarded for their willingness to try it out as well. It remains to be seen whether or not the team will use an opener in 2019, their immediate results from doing so this year are a sign that they should give it a shot.

For a more in depth look at the opener strategy and how the Twins fared with it, check out an article I put together a while back with much more information!

Ok, that was a lot to go through, so let’s recap a bit. While Lynn, Hughes, and Santana all didn’t do much to contribute, this was still a pretty successful season for the Minnesota Twins’ starting pitchers. Berrios and Gibson put together 1a and 1b seasons, and while Odorizzi didn’t quite reach expectations, he still had decent numbers for a back end arm. After that, the Twins were able to test out a wide variety of their talented youngsters, several of which showed reasons to be excited for the future.