Andrew Stevenson’s call-up Friday for September roster expansion was partly a reward for the 29-year-old outfielder’s great season at Triple-A St. Paul, where he hit .317/.395/.522 with 16 homers and 44 steals in 106 games.
It was also to add some insurance for Michael A. Taylor’s lingering hamstring soreness, which sent the Minnesota Twins’ primary center fielder to the injured list before Sunday’s loss to the Texas Rangers.
Taylor’s injury meant the Twins weren’t forced to make a more difficult roster decision Sunday when activating Willi Castro from the IL, where the switch-hitting utility player has been since Aug. 12 with a strained oblique. Stevenson, Castro and Joey Gallo — whose roster spot might have been in jeopardy under different circumstances — will likely split center field duties in Taylor’s absence.
Acquired from the Kansas City Royals in January to share the job with Byron Buxton in center field, Taylor instead started 102 of the first 136 games there. He’s played Gold Glove-caliber defense and stole 13 bases in 14 attempts, as expected, and the 32-year-old has also provided plenty of punch at the bottom of the lineup, hitting a career-high 20 homers with a .456 slugging percentage.
“He’s saved our baseball lives this year by being able to go out there and patrol that outfield,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He’s done some really nice things offensively too that you’re not banking when you bring him in. You’re banking on his defense. You’re banking on his baserunning. But he’s given us more than we could have even asked for.”
— Minnesota Twins (@Twins) September 2, 2023
Stevenson was out of the big leagues for the past two seasons after playing 248 games for the Washington Nationals from 2017-21, including winning a World Series in 2019. He signed a minor-league deal with the Twins in the middle of spring training and has been the Saints’ best all-around player, but the logjam of left-handed-hitting outfielders left him without many call-up opportunities.
Alex Kirilloff appears on the verge of returning from the IL, and the Twins are also hoping to add some or all of Buxton, Chris Paddack, Brock Stewart, Jorge Alcala and Louie Varland at some point this month, so more roster changes are coming and there simply won’t be room for everyone. Teams carry 28 players in September, up from 26 during the first five months of the season.
It’s very possible Stevenson won’t stick around all month. For now, though, he’s needed as center-field depth, and his speed and defense skill set could be a nice luxury item to have off the bench in the playoffs. One of the biggest differences between this season and last season for the Twins is quality depth, and having a player like Stevenson stashed in St. Paul is a prime example.
Varland prepping for the bullpen
Left-hander Brent Headrick was called up for the fourth time this season on Sept. 1, along with Stevenson, to provide some long relief while the Twins sort through other relief options, including Stewart, Paddack and Alcala rehabbing from injuries and Varland being prepped for bullpen work after starting all year.
Varland made a 54-pitch relief appearance Thursday in St. Paul, throwing four innings of one-run ball with four strikeouts. His fastball averaged 97.2 mph and topped out at 100.2 mph. That’s a big velocity jump from his 94.9 mph average fastball velocity as a starter and one of the reasons the Twins think the 25-year-old rookie could make an impact as a reliever down the stretch.
100.2 mph fastball
Wipeout changeup pic.twitter.com/Ah8KyAoIE2
— Tom Froemming (@TFTwins) September 1, 2023
In the regular season, bullpen quality is largely about having enough depth to cover 600 innings over six months. But in the playoffs, bullpens revolve around being able to turn to three or four high-octane arms who can be entrusted with high-leverage spots. Jhoan Duran certainly fits that description, but are Griffin Jax, Caleb Thielbar and Emilio Pagán a playoff-caliber setup trio?
Failing to add any significant relief help all offseason, or at the trade deadline, suggests the Twins believe they are, but there’s another possible explanation for the front office’s lack of action: They’re counting on Varland and the rehabbing Stewart/Paddack/Alcala trio as in-house bullpen reinforcements in October, an undeniably risky strategy.
Varland has been a starter for his entire career and has a 4.83 ERA through 82 innings in the majors, Stewart hasn’t thrown a pitch since June, Alcala has been injured for most of the past two seasons and Paddack is a career-long starter 15 months into his recovery from a second Tommy John surgery. It’s reasonable to assume none of them will be playoff-caliber relievers, yet they each could be.
There also doesn’t need to be a whole lot of predictability or planning involved in playoff bullpens, where many successful teams have ridden a hot arm or two who barely contributed during the regular season. And the Twins have another potential playoff bullpen option currently in their rotation (keep reading).
Readying the rotation
Starting pitching has carried the Twins for most of the season, but now there’s a new challenge: Get as many starters as possible to October feeling strong. That may sound simple, but it’s already becoming an issue as workloads pile up.
Tyler Mahle was lost for the season in May. Bailey Ober’s second-half struggles while blowing past his career-high innings count led to last week’s demotion to St. Paul. Joe Ryan recently returned from a groin injury that was preceded by an awful seven-start stretch. Kenta Maeda is in his first season back from Tommy John surgery and the 35-year-old has shown some signs of wearing down.
Pablo López and Sonny Gray have been the constants at the top of the rotation, with both ranking among the AL’s top-10 starters. Managing their workloads in September will be the priority because the Twins need them at full strength to start the first two playoff games. López is just 15 innings shy of his career high and the 33-year-old Gray has already thrown his most innings since 2019.
The Joe Ryan Experience: It was good. pic.twitter.com/z6TW4XGgmd
— Minnesota Twins (@Twins) September 2, 2023
Their starter for a potential must-win Game 3 is very much in flux. Ober might be totally out of the mix. Dallas Keuchel has been a pleasant surprise and he’s a playoff-tested veteran, but it’s hard to imagine the Twins putting the season on the line with a pitch-to-contact 36-year-old four months removed from being out of baseball. All of which seemingly points to Maeda or Ryan for Game 3.
Ryan’s season totals were wrecked by getting rocked for six weeks while hiding his strained groin from the team, but he was pitching at an All-Star level before the injury, posting a 2.98 ERA in 15 starts, and he’s looked sharp in two starts since returning. He absolutely has enough time to convince the Twins he’s back to the pre-injury level, which would make him an appealing Game 3 starter.
Maeda likely has a slight edge over Ryan for now, but even that’s complicated by his dominant track record as a playoff reliever for the Los Angeles Dodgers. If the Twins think Maeda and Ryan are equally good options to start Game 3, and perhaps even if they view Maeda as the slightly better option, they could go with Ryan because that would enable them to beef up the bullpen with Maeda.
(Photo of Andrew Stevenson: Tim Heitman / USA Today)