If there are two things making Minnesota Twins fans a little uneasy heading into next season, it's the manager and the bullpen.
That sounds like the title to a baseball themed romance novel, but it's a page turning thriller that Twins fans want to ensure has a happy ending. What happens with Rocco Baldelli is largely out of any one person's control. His fate will decided by the collective success or failure of the team next year and if he's able to steer the ship back into postseason waters.
The bullpen, however, is a tad bit more controllable.
Coming into the offseason, FanGraphs listed the Twins bullpen as the strongest position group on the team which may come as a bit of a surprise to fans who watched the unit struggle to the point of combustion last year. That bullpen enters Spring Training tied for fourth in baseball according to FanGraphs, though, so there's optimism things can return to where they were in 2021 when times were a lot happier in late inning situations.
Not all of the pressure to deliver rests on the shoulders of the arms currently in the bullpen. Minnesota could look to add someone like Matt Moore or Andrew Chafin to bolster the pen, but the best stress reliever is already in the clubhouse and won't add a single cent to the payroll.
Minnesota Twins starting rotation can bail out bullpen in 2023
Perhaps the biggest factor playing into the success or failure rate of the bullpen is the starting rotation.
Last year Twins starters averaged roughly 5.2 innings per game, which immediately put relievers in an almost impossible spot. Struggles in late inning situations shouldn't be solely blamed on starters being unable to go deeper than they were in 2022, but it's certainly not helping anyone when Rocco needed to start leaning on the bullpen in the fourth inning on a consistent basis.
Thankfully, this will likely be a problem that works itself out in 2023.
Gone are guys like Chris Archer and Devin Smeltzer needing to take the mound and struggling to make it deep into their start. Dylan Bundy led the Twins in starts last season and averaged 4.8 innings per game. In the now infamous Cleveland series in September, Minnesota trotted out Bundy, Archer and Josh Winder against Cal Quantrill, Triston McKenzie, and Shane Bieber.
Unfortunately, Twins fans are used to that sort of outmatched pitching prowess as it's haunted them for almost two decades. In 2019 the Twins started Randy Dobnak in Game 2 of the ALDS against New York, who was sandwiched between starts by José Berrios and Jake Odorizzi. None of those three pitchers made it past the fifth inning, with getting yanked in the fourth inning -- which goes to show even a solid bet isn't a winning one for Minnesota.
All of that is to say there's some serious trauma being carried by Twins fans who have been forced to live and die by starting pitching over the years and there hasn't been a whole lot of living. That could -- and should -- change this season.
Minnesota Twins Projected Rotation w/2022 stats
Innings per Game
Maeda's totals are from his last full season in 2021, as he missed last season after Tommy John surgery.
The initial calculations look to be worse than what the Twins were dealing with last season, but there's a lot to be said about the confidence this unit will give the team versus what was happening last year.
Nothing against them, but Bundy, Archer, and Winder should not be the three arms relied on in a must-win series against a division rival. Even if the Twins had managed to sneak into the postseason last year, a Bundy-Archer-Winder trio is who would have been supporting Joe Ryan in games against the best teams in the American League.
Now they have a rotation that should be headed by a trio of Gray-Ryan-Lopez, with Tyler Mahle as a solid No. 4 starter and any combination of Kenta Maeda, Bailey Ober, Chris Paddack, and Simeon Woods Richardson as the No. 5 starter.
That right there sounds a lot better in terms of options heading into a series like the one against Cleveland the Twins had last year than what they were able to trot out to the mound. It would be stunning if the rotation averaged a worse innings per game rate than it did last year, and the safe bet is that it'll be much closer to a six-inning average.
Even if the overall average doesn't move much, the fact that reliable starters are taking the mound on a nightly basis should allow for longer stretches of time between needing to rely on relief help, rather than the bullpen constantly getting called upon without proper rest.
If the Twins can get deeper into starts before needing to rely on the bullpen, that will go a long way in improving everything.