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Despite losing two starters, Twins keep big expectations for rotation

FORT MYERS, FLA. — Pablo López, who was tabbed the Twins' 2024 Opening Day starter almost immediately after last season ended, fittingly was a part of the first group of pitchers to throw bullpen sessions Wednesday.

He's the ace of the staff and he has no issue taking the lead. He looked like his usual self, throwing a variety of pitches to catcher Christian Vázquez, before moving to a drill involving pickoffs, then the weight room and finally the trainer's table.

The Twins featured one of the best starting rotations in the majors last year, which carried them to an American League Central Division title. Now they're tasked with repeating their success despite losing two starters, Sonny Gray and Kenta Maeda, to free agency.

During the first workout for pitchers and catchers, López emphasized the goals for the staff remain the same.

"It's a shame they are not going to be here, but that doesn't change our mentality," López said. "They were a part of our philosophy. Now they are with other teams. I know they are going to do great things, but that philosophy stays here."

There are many facets to the team's pitching philosophy, but the part López repeated multiple times: Be the best at attacking the strike zone. Twins starting pitchers led MLB in strikeouts last season and issued the fourth-fewest walks.

It was one year ago when López was still learning to throw a new pitch — a sweepy slider — and it helped him take the next step in his career. He stressed the importance of spring training's constant feedback.

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"Honestly, being a part of this staff means a lot to me," said López, who permitted one run in 12⅔ postseason innings last season. "The way I see it, every day we show up to the field, we have an opportunity to get better. It's about having our priorities straight and making sure everything we do has a purpose. I think it's going to be about really knowing the identity of the Twins pitching staff as a whole."

If the Twins want to prove themselves as one of the better organizations at pitching development, this year's staff could prove an important test. Chris Paddack is back from Tommy John surgery. Joe Ryan and Bailey Ober are looking to take the step López took last year. Louie Varland, who was electric out of the bullpen late last year, and recent trade addition Anthony DeSclafani are vying for the fifth spot.

"If we're stagnant and the same as what we were before, I don't think that is what we're looking for," Ober said. "I think all of us are trying to grow and keep pushing each other. I'm expecting that to happen this year."

Manager Rocco Baldelli addressed Twins pitchers and catchers briefly before Wednesday's workout, calling them the backbone of the team.

"All of the great teams that I've been a part of in my life or watched," Baldelli said, "they all have great pitching."

The Twins chose to bolster their bullpen this offseason by adding Justin Topa, Jay Jackson, Josh Staumont and lefthander Steven Okert. It gives them more options for the middle innings with their core late-inning relievers intact from the postseason run.

Perhaps, it provides some cover if the Twins' rotation isn't as dominant as last season. Or if the optimistic predictions come through, they found a way to improve the club's biggest strength.

"Obviously, you miss the guys when you lose them, especially good players like Sonny and Kenta," Baldelli said. "They're not guys that you're just going to, in a singular sense, replace. But you have to find different ways to still win, and we have ways to do that."