June 17, 2024

 Jhoan Durán Will Soon Return for the Twins. Should He Be Starting?

Desperate for innings, teams are transforming ace closers into starters. Should the Twins solve their rotation depth issues by moving their best bullpen arm?

Twins fans probably don’t remember much about Zack Littell. The cruise-ship loving pitcher began as a weak starter before becoming a reliable reliever in 2019 (though he posted a xERA of 5.51). During the 2020 season, his underwhelming stuff became too much for the playoff-bound team to keep and he was outrighted off the roster. Littell bounced around between the Giants, Rangers and Red Sox before making his home with Tampa in the middle of last year.

And the Rays did what they do best. Littell was converted back from reliever to starter, throwing 87 innings with a 3.93 ERA. So far, he looks even better this season; over 27 innings, the righty has a 3.11 ERA and a top 20 FIP. Not bad for a literal mid-season DFA pick up.

But the Rays are not unique. Converting bullpen arms into quality starters has become a bit of a trend for 2024. The Braves’ best starter is former White Sox ace Reynaldo Lopez. Michael King took a no hitter into the eighth for the Padres. Jordan Hicks is crushing for SF. Seth Lugo is building a Cy Young candidacy in Kansas City.

So that opens the question: could Durán join this crew? Cody Schoenmann speculated on the same topic in January, though there was no data to back up that these conversions would work. It’s hard to say how many innings each of these starters have in them, but now it does seem that this seems to be working.

More so, the Twins now need innings and good ones. Anthony DeSclafani never made it to the mound; Louie Varland got pushed to the minors to fix his stuff. Simeon Woods Richardson has looked capable in the fifth slot, but the reinforcements behind him are scant. The Twins could always pick up a veteran for a minor league deal, but what about five strong innings from Jhoan Durán?

Durán never got a real chance with the Twins organization as a starter. After coming over in the Eduardo Escobar trade, the lost minor league season in 2020 and an elbow strain in 2021 pushed the Twins to rethink a pitcher who had never topped 115 innings. He abandoned his changeup, relying entirely on his fastball, “splinker,” and curveball.

A few things have changed in Durán’s profile since making the majors. He throws his now infamous splinker as much as his curveball, creating a three-pitch mix. That’s maybe not enough to go deep into games, but perhaps it’s enough to make it five innings and limit his need. After all, Durán has comfortably gone two innings plenty of times, including his elite performance in the Twins’ final playoff game.

When Durán debuted in 2022, there was very little hope in the bullpen besides him. Now, the Twins have a bonafide army with Griffin Jax and Brock Stewart headlining the group that remains a top 5 bullpen (and top 2 in strikeouts). Durán would only push that group into elite territory, but right now the Twins need to be asking what they need more.

Of course, this is a pipe dream. When asked about this possibility last year, Rocco Baldelli poured some cold water. “I daydream about him closing big games for us. I don’t daydream about him starting.” And more than that, how can one want to get rid of the league’s most epic closer entrance

It might be too late to convert Durán into a full-blown starter for 2024, especially with the Twins wanting to be careful with his injury as he returns. But unless the Twins have other plans to bolster their back end rotation, they might need to have a serious conversation going into 2025.

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