Monday, January 8, 2018

Minnesota Making Room On The Mound

As spring training looms, Paul Molitor and the Minnesota Twins will soon have to make some tough decisions. While the 25 man roster as a whole must be settled upon, the Twins will need to decide how they'll round out the rotation. It's obvious another Jose Berrios or Ervin Santana type impact arm is needed, but on the back end, the group has plenty of suitors. For two players though, the future is all but certain.

First, there's 31 year-old Phil Hughes. Still owed $26.4 million through 2019, the premature extension Terry Ryan handed out continues to be the fit that keeps on giving. Hughes gave Minnesota just 53.2 IP a season ago, and that was in follow up to a 2016 that saw him turn in just 59.0 IP. Despite being a true Cy Young candidate in 2014, his first year with Minnesota, it's been a deep dive off a cliff since.

The past two seasons, Hughes has dealt with a myriad of injuries. From breaking a bone in his leg, to undergoing Thoracic Outlet Surgery, health has not been something he can lay claim to. It's the TOS procedure that remains relatively difficult to come back from, and the list of those who've successfully recovered is not a long one (Matt Harvey of the Mets finds himself on the wrong side of the discussion as well). After turning in a 5.87 ERA and allowing opposing hitters a .907 OPS off of him, Hughes was shut down and again went searching for answers.

On August 10, Hughes underwent Thoracic Outlet Syndrome revision surgery, in hopes it would help set him up for a cleaner bill of health in the year ahead. Now fully healed, the question turns to what he can give Minnesota. The past two seasons, he's allowed hard contact roughly 40% of the time. When he was going well in 2014, that number was 32%, and it's just 38.9% over the course of his career. Maybe most alarming however is the significant dip in velocity. After throwing his fastball at 93 mph from 2009-2014, he's lost at least 3 mph over the past two seasons. Such a significant decrease can obviously cause issues, and could end up contributing to a career ending decline.

If he's healthy, the Twins would be getting a command artist back in the fold. Hughes at his best is a plenty serviceable back end option, and would be more than capable of being entrusted to take the ball every 5th day. Although the upside isn't there, and he's probably past his prime, a staff could do much worse than a solid Phil Hughes. How long of a leash he has to prove that's where he's at, or if there is truly a clean bill of health all remain fair questions. With north of $20 million left on his deal, it's hard to see the Twins cutting bait, but I can't imagine the current structure allowing for ineffectiveness either.

On the opposite end of the return spectrum is one-time top prospect Trevor May. Making his return from Tommy John surgery, May likely won't be ready on Opening Day, but also shouldn't be far off. Prior to the injury, it appeared May was going to be given every opportunity to earn a spot in the starting rotation. Despite being used solely as a reliever in 2016, the desire to get more use out of him seemed apparent.

As a reliever, May posted an elite 12.7 K/9 and a manageable 3.6 BB/9. His 1.5 HR/9 led to an inflated ERA, but the 3.80 FIP suggests there was quality beyond the surface. While May in the bullpen could truly be an asset to Minnesota, there's also the question as to whether or not his back could put up with the workload. Never working solely as a reliever, injuries flared as he was called upon to pitch more often, and ready himself at a significantly quicker pace.

Prior to his injury, May appeared to be more than a soft tossing arm deployed out of the Twins stable. As a starter, he averaged right around 94 mph on his fastball, and bumped that up to 95 mph coming out of the pen. While not triple digits, sustained velocity in the mid 90's is something that Minnesota would no doubt welcome. It's fair to wonder whether or not the surgery will sap some of the electricity, but track records for Tommy John patients have greatly improved over time.

In both cases, Minnesota will have some difficult decisions to make. There's a much better case to be made for May being inserted into the rotation if healthy. His long term value remains of benefit to the club, and at 28, his prime still should be in front of him. Outside of monetary obligations it's hard to say the same for Hughes. Unless he's a lights out 2014 version of himself, there's plenty of reason for skepticism when it comes to future contributions.

At any rate, the Twins have two starters locked in, and a third (Kyle Gibson) pretty close to being written in ink as well. The necessary addition of a top level arm remains a must, but how the 5th and final spot shakes out is anyones guess. Both Hughes and May will be in the conversation, but how will the production from both speak?

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