by Thomas U. Tuttle
The Minnesota Twins are only a few games from being a quarter of the way through the 2017 season, and things are looking – and feeling – pretty good around Target Field. And well they should, as the squad holds onto a share of first place as of this writing.
Starting pitching has been pretty solid in general, with the recent upside surprise from Jose Berrios adding to the positive vibe. Of course, just about anything he delivered would have looked better than most of last year’s outings. Berrios was considered a key to a successful 2016 campaign and his miserable 8.00 ERA – in a fair sampling of outings – matched the futility of Minnesota’s entire baseball season, the worst in its history.
It’s awfully early in his return to offer predictions, but JB (as Brian Dozier likes to call him) looked like a different pitcher his first time out – pitching with the command and confidence that was sorely lacking last year. For the Twins to make a meaningful run in 2017, Berrios could be critical. Count me among those who think he’s going to continue on a new path this year.
Ervin Santana has been outstanding, with the exception of the blowout loss to the Red Sox, where he gave up a trio of four-baggers and poured a little gasoline for the bullpen to ignite. He’s throwing well, keeping the ball down and staying among the league leaders in ERA, innings pitched, and won-loss record. At least for now, Ervin is one if the best guys on the mound anywhere, and this true team player is enjoying it. Look for Santana, tough after the break last year, to keep his mojo going.
Of course, the Twins need to have a strong Santana because the other starters inspire significantly less confidence, despite winning records at this early stage. That does not include the departed Kyle Gibson, the number three hurler jettisoned along with his 8.20 ERA on May 4th. Gibson has good stuff, as he displayed during a strong spring, but move him up here and things have consistently turned frustrating – maddeningly so.
The great St. Thomas baseball coach Dennis Denning always preached, “work fast, change speeds, throw strikes.” A simple mantra that he demanded from his pitchers, and they were rewarded with results including a national championship. Gibson might have had trouble pitching D-3 for Denning, as he worked slow (frequently going deep into counts and taking his time doing it), struggling mightily to control his sinker while showing little confidence in his fastball – and generally getting rocked once he found himself in trouble.
“It’s not working. He’s putting us in a bad spot more times than not,” said manager Paul Molitor in sending him down. I’ve regarded Gibson as a key to the Twins success over the past couple years, given his tools and potential, but I could be completely done with him if Berrios can rise to the occasion. Jose has jumped into the number four starter spot, and we need him to perform well immediately – which he did! That said, good luck Kyle Gibson – here’s hoping you make it back to MLB – somewhere…
Starters Phil Hughes and Hector Santiago have benefitted from pretty good run support and fairly solid defense. That said, Hughes has had good command of his pitches despite giving up a lot of hits and runs, per usual. Phil has to use his multi-speed change-up effectively, and thus far he has, utilizing veteran knowledge and experience to make his less-than-overpowering stuff work for him. Watch his ERA, already high, and if it heads north expect the Twins to start heading south.
Same kind of thing with Hector Santiago, the new lefty who throws hard and can be outstanding when he is on. He’s a strikeout pitcher when things are right and is super-tough on left handed hitters with his delivery and pace. Molitor likes him and said earlier this year in Florida, “he’s a major league guy with big-league stuff who is going to help us this year.”
Hector is a competitor known for his intensity and is eager to have a great year; he should be, given his mediocrity after the Twins obtained him last year (but thanks for helping us dump Ricky Nolasco!). Santiago has always been around the .500 mark during his runs with the White Sox and the Angels, was 3-6 in Minnesota last year, and could break out this year. He needs to – and like Phil Hughes, if he stumbles badly the challenges will be great. But so far, pretty good…
Let’s hope the new rotation can hold things together.. The Twins need the starters to remain accountable, particularly given the uncertainties of the bullpen, led by the gutty closer Brandon Kintzler and a few guys named Moe (everybody else in the pen with ERA’s over four). Can this rotation stay solid? Clearly this is strictly a wait and see for Twins fans, but if Berrios can fill a big gap in keeping us off the Tyler Duffey feed-bag and win a bunch of games, things could stay tight in a winnable division.
And that’s because the offense is interesting. More on the lively Minnesota bats and the awesome Miguel Sano later this week.