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Zulgad: Eye on October? Twins' decision to put Rich Hill on IL might be the smart play

Rich Hill
Minnesota Twins pitcher Rich Hill throws against the St. Louis Cardinals in the first inning of a baseball game Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

The Twins’ decision to sign Rich Hill to a one-year, $3 million contract last December was an interesting risk/reward move by a franchise that was looking to bolster its starting pitching staff.

The potential reward was obvious. Hill might be 40 years old but the lefthander has proven that when he’s healthy, he still has the ability to be a very effective pitcher. Hill is in his 16th big-league season and has pitched in 10 postseason series, including two World Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers in which he posted a 1.80 ERA in 15 innings.

Hill showed the Twins what he could mean to their rotation last Wednesday, making his first start of the season against the St. Louis Cardinals at Target Field. He departed after giving up only two hits with a walk and two strikeouts in five innings in a 3-0 victory. What made Hill so much fun to watch is that in this day of pitchers throwing gas, he used a fastball that did not break 88 miles-per-hour and a curveball. That was all he needed. Hill was scheduled to make his second start with the Twins on Tuesday afternoon against the Pirates at Target Field.

This is where the risk part of signing Hill enters the equation. Hill won’t make that start, and the next time he will step on a mound remains an unknown, because back soreness and shoulder fatigue landed him on the 10-day injured list Monday night following the Twins’ 5-4 victory over Pittsburgh. This will mark Hill’s 15th trip to the injured list in his 16-year career.

He joins Twins starters Jake Odorizzi (right intercostal strain) and Homer Bailey (right biceps tendinitis) on the IL.

This already is the second time this season that Hill has had to skip a start. He was going to start the second game of the year against the White Sox, but that outing was pushed back because of inflammation in his pitching shoulder. Last fall, Hill underwent “primary repair” surgery to fix a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow after he pitched for the Dodgers in 2019.

Hill, who made only 13 starts for Los Angeles but did return to pitch 2.2 innings in Game 4 of the National League Division Series, wasn’t expected to be ready to join the Twins rotation until July when he arrived for spring training in February. The fact the coronavirus pandemic delayed the start of the season by four months gave Hill the opportunity to be in the rotation from the start of the year. Or at least it seemed that way.

So is Hill’s latest trip to the IL cause for concern or could this be a strategical move by the Twins? It’s a fair question and it’s also one manager Rocco Baldelli and team officials aren’t going to answer. Obviously, if Hill is battling shoulder and back issues — he said after his start last week that his surgically repaired elbow feels good — that is going to be a problem. But there also is a chance the Twins are looking to give Hill as much rest as possible and hope that when the postseason arrives he will be ready to go.

The fact that 16 teams will make the playoffs this season means the Twins are just about certain to be in the best-of-three first round beginning in late September. The AL Central leaders improved to 8-2 with Monday’s come-from-behind victory and in this 60-game season Minnesota already looks as if it will repeat as division champs.

The difficult thing will be getting past that dangerously short first round in which no teams will get a bye. If only five teams from the American League were going to make the playoffs — which in an ordinary season is the case — the Twins brass might feel more pressure when planning for this regular season. But with eight teams from the AL going to the postseason, there is reason to focus on the fall.

Hopefully, for the Twins and Hill, that is what they are doing. Putting the veteran into what amounts to pitching storage and saving the majority of his innings for when they need them the most. There also is the possibility that the Twins gambled on Hill staying healthy and that’s not going to happen. Given what we saw from the crafty lefty last Wednesday, it will be unfortunate if that is the case.