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2017 MLB preview: The Minnesota Twins’ pitching is still a major problem

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Poor organizational planning and development have left the Twins with one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball.

Detroit Tigers v Minnesota Twins - Game Two Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The Minnesota Twins finished the 2016 season with a 59-103 record, the worst mark in Major League Baseball. Their 5.09 team ERA was tied for the worst in baseball. They gave up more runs and home runs than any other American League team, and allowed the highest batting average in all of baseball. Only one of their pitchers, righthander Ervin Santana, was worth more than 1.5 WAR. They were, by most accounts, the worst pitching staff in the AL.

However, the Twins made an improvement in one key area: strikeouts. After ranking dead last in strikeout rate for five consecutive seasons, the Twins improved to an 18.9 percent strikeout rate. This was still the third-worst figure in baseball, but it was the first glimpse that the Twins have backed off of their old organizational philosophy that strikeouts are the devil, Bobby.

Heading into 2017, they still have a long way to go. Already burdened with the long-term contracts of Phil Hughes and Ervin Santana, the Twins did not make any major additions this offseason. They were set to rely on young talents in the rotation like Jose Berrios and Trevor May, but Berrios was optioned to the minors and May underwent Tommy John surgery. Lefthander Hector Santiago has given the Detroit Tigers fits at times, but is otherwise another mediocre starter.

Normally, this is the part where I’d hint at some optimism for the future. However, there isn’t much to be found here. Sure, Santana is a nice piece, and Berrios could be really stinkin’ good one day, but this Twins staff simply isn’t good enough to support a potentially dangerous offense.

Pitching at a glance

2016 runs allowed: 889 | 2016 team ERA/FIP: 5.09/4.57| 2016 team fWAR: 8.1
2017 runs allowed projected (PECOTA): 745 | 2017 projected WAR (FanGraphs): 12.6

Note: Numbers below are based on Steamer projections.

RHP Ervin Santana

2016 numbers: 181 1/3 IP, 3.38 ERA, 3.81 FIP, 3.2 fWAR
2017 projections: 199 IP, 4.54 ERA, 4.37 FIP, 2.2 fWAR

In a year in which baseballs left the ballpark at a near-record pace, the notably homer-prone Ervin Santana served up one of the lowest home run rates of his career. Santana was a true weapon for the Twins last season, holding opponents to a 3.38 ERA in 181 1/3 innings. His 19.9 percent strikeout rate was slightly better than his career norms, and he actually gained a tick of fastball velocity. These are excellent numbers for a No. 2 or 3 starter.

The problem? Santana was Minnesota’s No. 1 starter, and he didn’t get much help. No other pitcher threw even 150 innings for the Twins last year, and only Ricky Nolasco came within two WAR of Santana’s production. His FIP was a little high at 3.89, but he has a tendency to out-perform that number. With a 3.59 ERA and 2.81 strikeout-to-walk ratio in nearly 700 innings over the past four years, he is showing no signs of slowing down just yet.

LHP Hector Santiago

2016 numbers: 182 IP, 4.70 ERA, 5.31 FIP, 0.4 fWAR
2017 projections: 176 IP, 5.06 ERA, 5.11 FIP, 1.0 fWAR

Few opposing pitchers are as frustrating to watch as Hector Santiago. The 29-year-old lefthander has relatively average stuff and walks 10 percent of the hitters he faces, but has consistently out-performed his peripherals thanks to an innate ability to induce weak contact and lots of pop-ups. Even in an abysmal 2016 season, his 13.5 percent pop-up rate was well above league average. He allowed a 4.70 ERA and 5.31 FIP in 182 innings, numbers that look even better when you consider how brutal his 11 starts were with the Twins late last summer. Santiago allowed a 5.58 ERA and 5.82 FIP in those outings.

Don’t expect that downturn in production going forward, though; Santiago’s strikeout rate mysteriously dropped by seven percentage points after arriving in Minnesota, an anomaly that should correct itself in more innings this year.

RHP Phil Hughes

2016 numbers: 59 IP, 5.95 ERA, 5.08 FIP, 0.2 fWAR
2017 projections: 141 IP, 4.88 ERA, 4.70 FIP, 1.3 fWAR

Poor Phil Hughes. After the Twins finally improved their outfield defense to a respectable level, he was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, and had season-ending shoulder surgery in June. The track record for post-thoracic outlet pitchers isn’t great, and Hughes wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire prior to that point either. He broke the single-season strikeout-to-walk ratio record in 2014, but fell back to earth with a 4.40 ERA and 4.70 FIP in 2015. His numbers further regressed last season, and he allowed a 5.95 ERA and 5.08 FIP before succumbing to his injury.

Fortunately for him, things seem to be going well this spring. He has stayed healthy thus far, and the only media attention he has received — aside from a bit of publicity about his changeup — is about how he weirdly kept the rib that was surgically removed last summer.

RHP Kyle Gibson

2016 numbers: 147 13 IP, 5.07 ERA, 4.70 FIP, 1.1 fWAR
2017 projections: 163 IP, 4.53 ERA, 4.43 FIP, 1.7 fWAR

A shoulder injury robbed Gibson of a few starts last spring, but the big righthander still logged 147 13 innings, the second-highest total on the team. Unfortunately, those innings were decidedly mediocre, as Gibson’s normally low home run rate jumped up to 1.22 per nine innings. Previously a ground ball artist, Gibson’s ground ball rate dropped to just 48.8 percent, while his line drive rate increased to 22.7 percent. Opponents pulled the ball more, made harder contact, and generally wore Gibson out more than we have previously seen.

RHP Tyler Duffey

2016 numbers: 133 IP, 6.43 ERA, 4.73 FIP, 1.0 fWAR
2017 projections: 141 IP, 4.50 ERA, 4.18 FIP, 1.6 fWAR

Tyler Duffey was impressive in his rookie season, striking out 21.9 percent of batters in 59 innings. Once hitters learned to lay off that curveball – in their defense, it’s a good one – his strikeout rate declined and the ERA ballooned. He spent his college days as a reliever, and could be headed back there in the near future. However, thanks to Trevor May’s injury, Duffey will likely begin the season in the rotation. He is a two-pitch pitcher who saw his ERA jump by three full runs (!) from 2015 to 2016. This was partly due to bad ball luck — Duffey had a .339 BABIP last season — and partly due to him giving up more hard contact than ever before. PECOTA loves him, but he isn’t much more than a placeholder for...

RHP Jose Berrios

2016 numbers: 58 13 IP, 8.02 ERA, 6.20 FIP, -0.4 fWAR
2017 projections: 43.0 IP, 4.42 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 0.5 fWAR

Jose Berrios might be the most important player in the Twins’ entire organization. Center fielder Byron Buxton might ultimately become their biggest star and face of the franchise, but Berrios is their lone pitching prospect in their system with true top-of-the-rotation upside. The Twins could push their chips in and trade for someone like Jose Quintana – or the next ace on the trade market, given their timeline – but their whole rebuild would go a lot smoother if Berrios could develop into the pitcher advertised by every prospect ranking outlet in existence.

That road to stardom took a major detour in 2016. Berrios dominated Triple-A hitters again, striking out 10 batters per nine innings while allowing a 2.51 ERA in 17 International League starts. When he got to the majors, however, things fell apart. He couldn’t locate his fastball, and there were even rumors of him tipping pitches. Hitters sure seemed to know what was coming, as Berrios allowed an 8.02 ERA in 58 1/3 innings of work. While fans won’t see Berrios early on — he was optioned to Triple-A Rochester already — he should get plenty of opportunities at the major league level throughout the year.

The depth

Lefthander Adalberto Mejia was a top-100 prospect while with the San Francisco Giants, and posted solid results at the two highest levels of the minor leagues last season. He doesn’t have the ceiling of prospects like Stephen Gonsalvez or Tyler Jay, but is practically at his floor already, a solid No. 4-5 starter at the MLB level. Twins fans were excited at the possibility of seeing May return to the starting rotation in 2017. He enjoyed a decent year there in 2015, compiling a 4.00 ERA and 3.25 FIP in 114 23 innings, including 16 starts. Alas, things did not go as planned. May was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow in early March. He underwent Tommy John surgery soon after, and will be out for the entire season.

Bullpen

After dominating the Tigers — and the rest of the AL, I suppose — for years, longtime Twins closer Glen Perkins missed nearly all of the 2016 season with a shoulder injury. He underwent shoulder labrum surgery last June, and still might start the season on the 60-day disabled list as he rehabs. In his old role is Brandon Kintzler, a 32-year-old ground ball artist who managed a 3.15 ERA and 3.61 FIP in 54 13 innings last year. He went 17-for-20 in save situations, but largely on the back of a career-best walk rate while striking out just 15.6 percent of hitters.

Righthander Matt Belisle was the Twins’ lone addition to the pitching staff this offseason, but he’s 36 years old and has never pitched in the American League before. He put up dominant numbers with the Washington Nationals last season, but has a career 4.20 ERA and 3.76 FIP in 13 MLB seasons. Hard-throwing righthander Ryan Pressly may be the closer in waiting, especially if the jump in strikeout rate he produced last season is legitimate. Craig Breslow and Taylor Rogers are the lefthanders likely to open the season on the 25-man roster, but neither is bound to be particularly effective against the Tigers’ righty-heavy lineup.