Having spent time at spring training down in Fort Myers last week, the Twins came off with a process that looked poised to process better results. 2017 has been looking like a season in which Minnesota could turn the page from an ugly 103 loss a season ago. Then, upon returning to Minnesota, the news that Trevor May's season would now be over had hit. What happens now?
After looking back through some of my tweets from Minnesota's exhibition against Team USA, it seems I had been aware of what really was unknown. Sitting around 95 mph on his fastball at the start of the game, May's velocity dipped to 91-92 mph in short order. It was later revealed that in a pitch midway through his outing, he blew out his UCL. Now destined for Tommy John surgery, the Twins must pick up the pieces and ask themselves what's next.
I had Trevor May penciled in as the team's fifth starter. He wasn't going back to the bullpen with his back issues, and he offered legitimate upside in the rotation. While that now isn't going to happen, the list of candidates to take his place is long. Everyone from Jose Berrios, Adalberto Mejia, and Justin Haley to Ryan Vogelsong, Tyler Duffey, and Nick Tepesch should be in play. For Molitor's squad though, I think the narrative is less about the next man up than it is the men already involved.
There has long been little doubt that Phil Hughes, Hector Santiago, or Kyle Gibson would be in the Twins Opening Day rotation. Each of those three was a lock, and they'd be joining Opening Day starter Ervin Santana. What becomes integral now is that the trio elevate themselves to pick up the slack.
First and foremost, Hughes has to show his injury is behind him. Over the course of the spring, a lot had been made of Hughes' velocity, and for good reason. After undergoing Thoracic Outlet surgery, he's seen a visible decline in the speed of his fastball. For a guy that doesn't blow batters away, losing any competitive advantage isn't ideal.
Last season, Hughes turned in just 59 innings before ending his season. He had already given up 11 homers, after surrendering a league worst 29 the season before, and his walk rate had doubled (but still respectable at 2.0 BB/9). Hughes hasn't given Minnesota more than 5.4 K/9 since his incredibly debut season, and he'll need to be better than his low water mark this time around. Minnesota isn't going to bank on him to be that Cy Young type pitcher he was in 2014, but he must have an ERA right under 4.00 and strike out at least six per nine. It's a big ask for a guy with a lot of question marks, but the Twins can't have him do less now.
That brings us to Hector Santiago, who's done little to put himself in good graces since getting to Minnesota. The Twins are paying him virtually the same $12 million that Ricky Nolasco took up, and his numbers haven't been heartwarming. After coming over from Los Angeles last season, Santiago owned a 5.58 ERA and gave up 13 long balls (to total 33 on the year).
The addition of Jason Castro should help Santiago. Kurt Suzuki wasn't going to do him favors behind the dish, and a pitcher who has given up 62 homers since 2015 needs every advantage he can muster. Again, the Twins won't be counting on the 2015 All Star version of the former Angels pitcher, but they need him to pitch like he deserves to be in the rotation as opposed to an arbitration casualty.
Finally, the biggest boost from the group could come from home grown Kyle Gibson. The former first round pick has been a breakout candidate for the past two years now, and it just hasn't come together. After an exciting 2015, Gibson took a big step back in 2016, and that needs to reverse its course. Despite owning a 5.07 ERA last season, it was the 4.70 FIP that did him in. Owning strikeout and walk totals in line with his career norms, Gibson wasn't doing himself any favors with an already shaky defense.
Molitor's sinkerballer needs to put himself in good situations and capitalize on them. Through early spring action, he's arguably looked the best of all Twins starters, and while results aren't much to get hung up on, his process and efficiency have been notable as well. If Gibson can emerge as the ace of the Twins staff, and take the reigns from Ervin Santana, the rotation group will be elevated beyond what the loss of May likely is.
At the end of the day, Minnesota not having Trevor May in the rotation to begin the year is an unfortunate development. No matter who fills his shoes however, it's going to be on the cast of the already assumed starters that will need to pick up the slack. What kind of upside Minnesota's 5th starter possesses was always going to be a wild card, but the margin for error is now markedly smaller.
Time to see who can pick their teammate up.