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Reusse: The long, hopeful road of Twins prospect Matt Canterino

FORT MYERS, FLA. – Minor league baseball was not played in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The players with early assignments to those teams with the Twins also would not assemble for 2021 spring training until March 30, after the big-league club had departed to open the season in Milwaukee.

Which meant this: The Twins' spring training assembly in 2021 included 40 players on the big-league roster, 21 traditional invitees to camp, and 14 minor leaguers termed "depth players."

Even as players started to leave the big-league clubhouse, the Twins were taking a look at the pair of "depth" pitchers: righthanders Josh Winder and Matt Canterino, both seen as potential starters by 2023, at the latest.

They were both a touch older than prior generations of hot prospects: Winder, drafted in the seventh round in 2018, was 24, and Canterino, drafted in the second round and signed with a $1.1 million bonus in 2019, was 23.

There was a reason for that, of course. They didn't get to play a competitive season in 2020 — a lost season that put many prospects behind schedule for reaching the big leagues.

The hopes the Twins carried for Winder and Canterino were on display on a sun-splashed late morning at Hammond Stadium in March 2021.

The Twins had an away exhibition game vs. Tampa Bay, with most of the regulars not making the trip. Six of those regulars were taking batting practice on the main diamond.

Those big-league bats would face Winder and Canterino. Winder would face five batters, then go sit in the dugout, replaced by Canterino, doing the same.

It was an intriguing twist on BP — and on personalities. Winder faced his hitters without conversation, then left the mound. Canterino constantly asked for feedback from the veterans.

At one point, he asked, "Did that jump on you a little?" And before the hitter could answer, catcher Ben Rortvedt said: "Yes. That jumped."

Watching that personality, and Canterino's big-time pitching background at Carroll High School in Southlake, Texas, and Rice University, and those Twins expectations — you had to be intrigued by this tall young man with the live arm.

Intrigued then, and wondering now.

"Do you remember that session with Winder?" Canterino was asked this week.

He was in the lobby of the dormitory/dining/meeting building that houses minor leaguers.

"That was the first spring training, a whole new experience," Canterino said. "Josh and I weren't getting work in exhibitions, and the Twins wanted us to get some reps of what it might be like in a game."

And talking up Donaldson? "You have a chance for feedback from a hitter like Josh Donaldson, you take it," Canterino said.

Those were the days, making the ball jump, or move away, or take a dive, and with everything in front of you as a pitcher.

Unfortunately for Canterino, what it turned out was in front of him were injuries. First, there was a forearm strain that arrived early in that 2021 season and limited him to 23 innings.

"Then, I got out there a few times in '22, but it was always there … never felt right," Canterino said. "When you have that forearm injury, it's often a sign of what's coming next."

Torn ligament in the right elbow. Tommy John surgery in August 2022. The entire 2023 season, missed.

Canterino has been here in Florida full time for months. Chris Paddack, now part of the Twins' projected rotation, became a mentor in the recovery process.

"I was a few months behind him in recovery, but Chris was coming back from his second Tommy John," Canterino said. "The way he worked, the way he pushed himself to get back at the end of the season … it was inspirational."

And to see Paddack throwing hard and getting outs for the Twins in the postseason?

"It was fantastic to watch that," Canterino said. "I was joyous."

Canterino, now 26, has pitched 85 official innings in the minors. The Twins have kept Canterino on the 40-man roster without seeing him pitch since those 37 innings in 2022. He started throwing for real here last October.

"There's big pressure now to stay healthy, right?" I asked.

Canterino paused and said: "Right now, I'm 100%. I don't know where the Twins are planning to start me this season. That's not really a concern.

"Getting outs has never been the problem for me. I have three pitches to throw with full confidence: fastball, slider … and a changeup that [Twins pitching coach] Pete Maki got me to change back when he was the minor league pitching coach. It's a excellent pitch now.

"Healthy, I'm going to help any team, wherever the Twins want me."

Canterino is engaged to Kylie Swiekatowski. They met at Rice, where she was a pole vaulter. She's now in medical school to become a plastic surgeon.

She's also from Green Bay, and her family holds season tickets to the Packers.

Packers vs. your Cowboys … that must be tough.

"We're the family from the Dallas-Ft. Worth suburbs that weren't Cowboys fans," Canterino said. "My dad, John, is a New Yorker. He indoctrinated my brother and me into being Yankees, Giants, Knicks and Rangers fans."

The Canterinos lived in Orlando before moving to Texas.

"We would go to see the Yankees when they played exhibitions at the Braves' park at Disney World," he said. "One game, all the regulars had left the game, and Dad wanted to leave. We wanted to stay.

"Dad said, 'Look at these guys. They're wearing numbers in the 80s. That guy there ... wearing 83. He's never going to make it to Yankee Stadium.'

"You know who 83 was? Robinson Canó."

Canterino smiled and said: "And you know who is wearing 83 for the Twins this spring? Me."