ST. PETERSBURG — If this is what the fully realized form of these Minnesota Twins looks like, this could be quite the fun summer in the Twin Cities.
The bats look like they’re coming to life, behind the stardom of Byron Buxton, the long-awaited surge of Carlos Correa and the makings of a career renaissance from Max Kepler. That was always expected. More significant is the success of the starting pitching depth — and that was more evident than ever on Sunday, when rookie Josh Winder, the club’s seventh starter, threw six shutout innings in his first big league start to lead the Twins to a 9-3 victory over the Rays at Tropicana Field.
Winder, ranked the No. 6 prospect in the organization by MLB Pipeline, yielded only a second-inning single by Harold Ramírez and fourth-inning double by Randy Arozarena in his 83-pitch appearance, becoming the first player in Twins history to throw at least six shutout innings and allow two or fewer hits in his first Major League start. He struck out seven and walked one.
“I feel like I got most of the nerves out after the first time, after the debut,” Winder said. “So it was kind of nice to ease my way into having more control of the game and it being my game. So [I’m] definitely easing into the starting role. Definitely made me feel very confident out there and really comfortable.”
This sort of effort is why the Twins carried seven starting pitchers on their 28-man roster to open the season and stuck with a six-man rotation with Winder available as a swingman. Even if it took until Sunday to find an opening for the 25-year-old to make his first big league start, it’s clear that his stuff can play in the big leagues now — and they want to give him that opportunity.
In fact, manager Rocco Baldelli said the Twins always planned to keep Winder around when rosters shrink to 26 on Monday, even before a right groin strain sent Bailey Ober to the 10-day IL on Saturday, opening up a spot in a five-man rotation until Sonny Gray likely returns from a hamstring strain later this week.
The skipper has also said that the Twins are comfortable sticking with a six-man rotation into May, even with a smaller roster, and they would likely still carry Winder if both Ober and Gray return healthy to fill out the six-man staff later this month. Minnesota has always liked to carry a starter as a long relief option to preserve the bullpen under Baldelli — often Randy Dobnak or Devin Smeltzer in the past — and this situation appears no different.
It has helped a lot that the Twins have been able to get Winder consistent work out of the bullpen to keep him stretched out. His last two appearances before Sunday came in extended relief after Gray got hurt against the Red Sox on April 16 (5 1/3 innings, 66 pitches) and in a planned piggyback outing to Chris Archer on April 24 (four innings, 61 pitches).
It hasn’t been a traditional schedule for a pitcher who never pitched in relief as a Minor Leaguer. But the Twins have been confident in his ability to adapt — and he has proven them right.
“[Starting today] was nice, but I think I’m getting good at coming out of the ‘pen, too,” Winder said. “I’m getting more used to it. I think versatility and flexibility as a pitcher is never a bad thing. So I’m just going to continue to do a good job of being prepared whenever my name is called, whether that’s in the first inning or the last inning.”
The Twins don’t often rush top prospects to the Major Leagues for inconsistent playing time. They often say that they see value in allowing those players to get consistent reps and settle into an everyday routine so that they’re ready for a significant opportunity in the big leagues, whenever it comes.
They haven’t handled Winder that way — and they see advantages for both team and player in this case.
“I think there’s a lot of benefits,” Baldelli said. “One, I think we’ve needed him because he’s good at what he does and I think he’s a good Major League pitcher at this point. … It’s not something you would do with every single guy. But also, if you had to insert him into the rotation and let him start for you, he’s got some experience under his belt, too.”
Clearly, that experience paid off on Sunday.