MINNEAPOLIS — The Twins still won a game to stretch their division lead to 6.5 games with 20 games left to play. They still got a nice outing from a dialed-in Jake Odorizzi. They still watched two Bombas sail over the fence off the powerful bat of Mitch Garver.
They’re still on pace to win 100 games, still hold MLB’s all-time record for most homers hit in a season, and still sold out Target Field on Saturday night with almost 40,000 buying admission to the show.
And yet, despite all those silver linings, Saturday at Target Field will be remembered for the cloud.
Michael Pineda was suspended 60 games for violating MLB’s drug program. He took a banned substance, a Diuretic, and after an appeal his sentence was reduced. But the stunning truth for the Twins is that his season is over. He will not pitch in the postseason.
The Twins had a tall ask as it was to match up with the titans in the American League with a starting rotation that has had its troubles in the second half. Pineda was the best of the bunch lately, with a 2.76 ERA in his past 11 outings. Rocco Baldelli referred to him as “Old Reliable” on Friday, which turned out to be Big Mike’s final outing of the 2019 season, and possibly his Twins career.
So what’s next for the Twins? How do you pick up the pieces of a magical season when one already shaky portion of the club gets dealt a significant blow?
The short and long of it is that other players will have to do their jobs and as a group, hope that’s good enough. Of course several pitchers that weren’t a big part of the plans in February now are going to have to deliver on unfair expectations. That’s the big leagues.
José Berríos and the Twins will have to get back on track and see a return to the best version of the Twins young starter. I’ve laid out my plan for the best way to get that accomplished, and it relies on giving him six days rest between starts.
That theory will be put to the test now that Pineda is eliminated from the picture and Kyle Gibson is on the Injured List dealing with ulcerative colitis. The Twins, however, have 18 pitchers on the roster and I’m doubling down on my opinion that now is the time to give Berríos the down time between outings.
Jake Odorizzi will have a lot placed on his shoulders this month and next one, too. He’s now probably the second-most important pitcher in the rotation, and as a relative veteran he’s going to be asked to be part of the crew that helps to steady the ship after Saturday’s wave rocked it.
Since Odorizzi eyesore-of-a-boxscore outing against the Yankees in late-July, the righty in his free-agent walk year has actually been solid for the Twins. He’s got a 3.00 ERA in those 7 starts, averaging about 5 1/2 innings in that stretch. He’s struck out 26% of hitters over that span of time, and deductive reasoning has him in line for a start in Game 1 or Game 2 of the American League Division Series as things currently stand.
Byron Buxton‘s return could suppress the rotation’s ERA. You look in the Twins dugout on a given night and you’re likely to see plenty of difference makers with the bat; you won’t see any difference maker quite like a healthy and productive Buxton. So we’ll all continue to patiently wait around while that shoulder gets stronger and stronger and maybe one day allows the star centerfielder to be more than a late-inning sub.
Those were the first three guys on my mind when I was asked about how the Twins “fill the shoes” of Pineda. Nobody fills the shoes – I mean, seriously, they were enormous boots. The Twins won’t be able to one-for-one replace what Pineda had given them. That’s doubly true in October. They’ll need to get different kinds of contributions from other places, and enough pitching to help bridge the gap.
The pitching plan:
Randy Dobnak will start Sunday’s game for the Twins, the series finale with the Indians. At least he’ll be the first pitcher to face a batter Sunday. Beyond that we’re not sure. He was used as an Opener last week against the Red Sox, and Lewis Thorpe is the one who pitched a more significant portion of that game.
It’s pitchers like Thorpe, Devin Smeltzer and Zack Littell that could be asked to soak up more innings. And Cody Stashak had an impressive year in the minor leagues, so perhaps he ought to be on that radar. Would you dare toy with the reasonably good thing you’ve got going in the bullpen right now? Make Trevor May or Tyler Duffey more of a multi-inning guy to help cover the gaps?
Kyle Gibson could return at some point and help to alleviate the pressure, but some would argue that’s not the most pressing thing on his to-do list right now. Anyway you map it out, the rest of the regular season will require some creativity. That’s doubly true if the Twins agree with me and want to try to find extra days for Berríos without the luxury of many team off days.
Under that plan the Twins would need to cover roughly 5 outings without their Big 4 remaining from their opening day rotation. I’m curious to see how the Twins go about replacing Pineda in September. But I’m fascinated to see how they try to do it in October.