Usually when a team loses two of its starting pitchers, it’s cause for concern. But in the case of the Minnesota Twins, it’s a positive.
Last week, the Twins put Kenta Maeda and Tyler Mahle on the IL. Maeda has had a rough return from Tommy John surgery in September 2021. After an encouraging start to the season in Miami on April 4 where Maeda had nine strikeouts and allowed only three hits over five innings, he was pulled after 79 pitches due to fatigue.
Six days later against the White Sox, Maeda went six innings and gave up four runs in the fourth inning before exiting the game after 83 pitches. Good enough for start number two.
10 days later in Boston was more bad luck than anything when Maeda had to exit after two innings due to a line drive to his shin. He would make his next start vs. the Yankees last week and get shelled for 10 runs in three innings. Soon after, he was place on the IL with a strained right triceps, nothing related to his Tommy John surgery. In hindsight, Maeda should have started the season in AAA St. Paul.
Meanwhile, Mahle will miss the next month and likely longer with an elbow injury that does not sound promising. Mahle has been disappointing since being traded from Cincinnati last summer. He made only three starts last year for the Twins before missing six weeks. He returned on September 3 to throw two innings vs. the White Sox before leaving with another shoulder injury and missing the rest of the season.
If Mahle could stay healthy, he could be a nice piece to the Twins starting rotation. I’m just not sure that he will ever be healthy to get through a full season.
The good news for Minnesota is that the two starters set to replace Maeda and Mahle are better.
Bailey Ober should have started the season in the starting rotation. He could not have pitched any better during spring training, but the Minnesota rotation was already set. Ober proved himself last season with a 3.21 ERA over 11 starts and 56 innings. The 6 foot 9 inch, 27 year old has been just as good in his first two starts in 2023, allowing two runs over 11 1/3 innings with 10 strikeouts. He should be part of the rotation even when Maeda and Mahle are healthy.
Louis Varland is set to start against the White Sox on Wednesday after opening his season a few weeks ago at Yankee Stadium. Not a highly regarded prospect, Varland made a good impression last season throwing 26 innings over five starts with a 3.81 ERA. The St. Paul native had a shaky start vs. the Yankees on April 14 allowing two runs in the first inning. After that, he was excellent striking out eight over six innings.
Varland has seen his velocity go up from 93 mph last season to 96 mph in his start vs. the Yankees. If he can consistently throw in the mid 90’s, Varland could secure a spot in the Twins rotation. He has 25 strikeouts in 15 innings at AAA St. Paul this season after averaging over 11 K’s per nine innings in his minor league career.
The loss of Maeda and Mahle will test the Twins pitching depth, but it appears the Minnesota rotation, which is second in MLB with a 3.28 ERA, has gotten even better in the short and long term.