A year after having the worst starting pitching staff in the big leagues, the Minnesota Twins will be looking to turn a significant corner in 2017. Paul Molitor has a pretty realistic opportunity to bounce back greatly in the wins column, but it's only going to happen if he can get productive outings from his starters.
While the Twins haven't had a true ace since the days of Francisco Liriano or Johan Santana, there are plenty of teams the operate with a good group rather than a top heavy individual. The Twins will be taking the latter path this year as they fill out their rotation, but the question becomes exactly who rounds it out.
Going into the year, I count at least 10 pitchers that Minnesota could task with starting a game. After using 11 different starters last season, I opined that the Twins would run out no more than 8 in 2017. Counting Ervin Santana, Hector Santiago, and Kyle Gibson as rotation locks, the club will need to make decisions on the final two spots. That brings us to the candidates and the order of their likeliness:
In Hughes, the Twins have an odd scenario. He's absolutely a lock if he's healthy, but coming back from Thoracic Outlet surgery doesn't guarantee that. Guys have bounced back differently, and he could be a shell of himself, or not pitch again at all. Hughes has faded every year since finishing 7th in the Cy Young voting during his first year with the Twins. If he does come back, hoping he lands somewhere just north of his 3.90 ERA across 2014-15 would make Minnesota ecstatic.
I'm much more skeptical than some on whether or not May finds success as a starter. Working as a reliever, he saw a nice spike in both his velocity and strikeout rates. Unfortunately, his back flared up and is likely tied to usage concerns. He hasn't consistently started since his debut season in 2014, and the results weren't good. Now more developed as a professional, the Twins will have to hope he can give them the strikeouts, with better command, and stay healthy.
After doing himself few favors last season, Berrios is going to be in a scenario in which he has to earn his spot during Spring Training. If Hughes isn't ready from the get go, I'd bet Berrios is the next man up. Command was the issue during Jose's rookie season, and his flat plane fastball got hit over the fence far too often (12 HR in 58.1 IP). The Twins will need to rely upon the year providing valuable experience, and the dominating stuff from Triple-A playing up a bit more at the highest level.
Acquired in exchange for Eduardo Nunez last season, Mejia was a nice get for the Twins system. He doesn't have flashy stuff, but should be capable of a back end spot in the rotation. In four starts for Triple-A Rochester, he totaled a 3.76 ERA to go with an 8.5 K/9. At the big league level he surrendered two earned runs across just 2.1 IP as a reliever. Mejia should get a serious look in Spring Training, and he's maybe the safer option if Minnesota wants to make absolutely sure that Berrios is ready.
Now we get to the bit of the stretch portion for Opening Day rotation options. Gonsalves is the Twins top pitching prospect by most accounts, and he should be expected to be a solid contributor. However, he's yet to pitch above Double-A. While Gonsalves owned a 2.06 ERA last year, his 10.0 K/9 was watered down a bit by a 3.7 BB/9. He has some command issues to work through, and will need to rely on pitching at the higher levels as opposed to just throwing. I'd expect him to make his MLB debut this season, but not out of the gate.
After starting 36 games for the Twins over his first two big league seasons, it's time Duffey heads to the bullpen. A college closer at Rice, Minnesota went the most sensible route in attempting to convert him to a starter first. Now 26 and without a dominant trio of offerings, he can be a very good two pitch reliever. His curveball is filthy when it's on, and he'll be more than capable of getting big leaguers out. Send him to the pen, decrease the homers (25 in 25 starts during 2016) and enjoy the uptick in velocity and strikeouts.
Included here because Haley has worked as a starter for the entirety of his minor league career, and likely is slotted there in the Twins future, he should only see pen time this season. Haley did pitch at Triple-A during 2016 and fared well posting a 3.59 ERA. He has been categorized as among the safest Rule 5 picks, and many have said he's major league ready to back-end a rotation. Given what's ahead of him though, I'd welcome his opportunities in 2017 to come in a long relief role.