MILWAUKEE — With Joe Ryan on the verge of returning from the injured list, the Minnesota Twins are considering their options, including a six-man starting rotation and a potential piggyback situation.
Ryan participated in a bullpen session before Tuesday night’s 7-3 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers and appears to be in line for a start Saturday against the Texas Rangers if he continues to feel good.
Ryan could return without another starter being removed from the roster, as the Twins are thinking long and hard about increasing the rotation to six pitchers after veteran Dallas Keuchel spun a gem Sunday.
One of the primary reasons the Twins are entertaining the idea is protecting several of their pitchers, including Bailey Ober, who received a no-decision after pitching an effective five innings in Tuesday’s contest.
With Ober having completed a career-high 136 1/3 innings (including 17 2/3 innings at Triple A) and Kenta Maeda coming off Tommy John surgery, the Twins could use the six-man rotation to reduce their pitchers’ workloads. Another possibility would be to have Keuchel piggyback Ober, a plan the Twins tried with mixed results early in the 2019 season with Michael Pineda and Martín Pérez.
“It’s something that we do pay attention to,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Bailey has just had fewer innings total compared to anyone else on our staff. We’ll keep an eye on him. I don’t see us making, really, any dramatic moves with him. As long as he’s going out there healthy, throwing the ball well, we’ll keep him going. If there’s some more subtle ways that we can lighten the load on him, giving him a day or a shorter outing when it makes sense, we could do that.”
Though Baldelli suggested the Twins could reduce Ober’s workload with shorter starts, he said Tuesday’s decision to remove the tall right-hander was based on the game situation. Though Ober intended to return to the mound to protect a 3-2 lead in the sixth inning, he was removed for reliever Dylan Floro.
Ober retired eight batters in a row to complete five innings, yet his command wasn’t quite as pinpoint as it normally is. For a second straight start, Ober walked three batters. In his previous 17 starts, Ober walked 14 hitters total.
With the heart of Milwaukee’s order due up in the sixth, Baldelli elected to use Floro, who matched up particularly well with that part of the lineup. Or so the Twins thought.
Instead, Floro surrendered a pair of hard-hit singles to start the inning, then was dinked and dunked to death in a spectacularly ugly showing. He yielded five earned runs and six hits as Milwaukee took a commanding 7-3 lead.
“Execution can always be better when something like that happens,” Floro said. “That’s why I’m in those situations. You gotta find a way to minimize runs. One run would have been a lot better than five.”
Regardless of why Ober was pulled after 78 pitches, this could be how the Twins operate down the stretch. He may be 28, but Ober has been a highly effective major-league starter despite never making noise on prospect lists. He entered Tuesday with a career 3.64 ERA in 51 major-league starts.
Even after this season, Ober will have only two-plus seasons of service time, which means he could be part of the team’s starting rotation through the 2027 season if he stays healthy.
Health issues in the minor leagues limited Ober’s innings totals early in his career. Before he debuted with the Twins during the 2021 season and pitched a combined 108 1/3 innings, Ober hadn’t reached triple-digit innings since his freshman year at the College of Charleston in 2014.
Given Ober’s history, the Twins have always tried to protect him. In 2021, they maxed out Ober at six innings, with 10 of his 20 starts lasting fewer than five innings. He topped 90 pitches only once that season.
Pegged to be a full-time starter in 2022 with fewer restrictions, Ober was limited to 11 starts because of a groin injury that sidelined him for three months. He ended the season with four outstanding starts in September and October but also wound up pitching only 56 innings.
Though Ober is easily beyond his all-time high, he says he feels great. Tuesday, his four-seam fastball velocity touched a season-best 94 mph. He got seven swings-and-misses with his fastball.
But Ober also surrendered five hard-hit balls, including a two-run homer to Willy Adames in the first inning, and needed some effective pitching to maneuver out of trouble. Ober walked two in his first inning of work, and the homer to Adames was on a changeup away that he left up too much in the zone.
After Christian Yelich opened the third inning with a mishit, opposite-field double, Ober issued his third walk. Yet he settled in and escaped the jam with a double play and a lineout to third base. Ober then retired the side in the fourth and fifth innings and kept the Twins in front after they rallied from an early two-run deficit.
“It’s tough,” Ober said. “I’m trying to go out there and help this team win games so we can make the playoffs and make a deep postseason run. We’re trying to make the playoffs and win in the postseason. That’s our plan, and that’s what I want to do, and that’s what I plan on trying to do. I’m not really worried about what their ideas, what they’re planning of me throughout the rest of the season. I can’t control that. They’re going to do what they want to do, and I’m just going to try to take the mound and get some wins.”
— Bally Sports North (@BallySportsNOR) August 23, 2023
The Twins are considering either extending the rotation or potentially having Ober and Keuchel split starts because of their five-game lead over the Cleveland Guardians, who topped the Los Angeles Dodgers 8-3 on Tuesday, in the American League Central.
With the Guardians continuing to have difficulty scoring and injuries crushing their rotation, the Twins appear to have some wiggle room and are at least exploring how to better protect their players. Were they to stick with a five-man rotation and boot Keuchel, who was perfect for 19 batters Sunday after an abysmal outing his previous start in Philadelphia, it would mean between six and seven more starts for Ober.
By adding a day between outings or even splitting his innings with Keuchel, the Twins could significantly decrease Ober’s workload at a time when he has struggled. Despite limiting Milwaukee to two earned runs Tuesday, Ober, one of the team’s more consistent starters in the first half, has a 5.25 ERA since returning from the All-Star break.
After the game, Ober said he isn’t aware of the team’s plans for future usage.
“They have not communicated that to me,” he said. “I’m just going to go out there and keep throwing. Felt really good today. … I’ve been feeling really good. I’m just going to continue going out there every day that they put me out there.”
As return nears, Ryan happy with off-speed pitches
On the heels of a strong rehab outing at St. Paul on Friday, Ryan threw 20-30 pitches in his session Tuesday and feels good. As long as he comes out of the session healthy, Ryan’s next outing would come in the big leagues, Baldelli said.
Ryan went on the injured list Aug. 3 with a left groin strain, an injury he pitched through since his June start in Atlanta. Though his fastball stuff remained good throughout, Ryan’s off-speed pitches weren’t nearly as effective. He has seen improvement in that area since his placement on the IL.
“Just physically was the main focus and just feeling athletic and just getting down the slope,” Ryan said. “That was probably the main focus — and throwing some good pitches. That was good. … It’s more just, like, figuring out how to get in some better positions. The pitch quality was there, so that was the main focus. Yeah, I felt like I could just get a little more stability in my legs.”
(Photo of Bailey Ober: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)