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Souhan: Why Twins' pitching plan can be both unpopular, successful

You are what you emphasize.

That's one of the oldest coaching and team-building aphorisms in the history of sport, one that applies to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Minnesota Timberwolves and, it would seem, the Minnesota Twins.

The Chiefs decided two years ago to trade Tyreek Hill, the most explosive receiver in the NFL. They used the resulting draft picks to alter their philosophy. Instead of trying to outscore opponents, they would build a powerhouse defense and a capable running game to support quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

The result: Two straight Super Bowl victories with a young, talented defense and Mahomes' late-game heroics making the difference.

The Timberwolves zigged when the rest of the NBA zagged, trading a massive number of assets for defensive center Rudy Gobert when most teams were prioritizing guard play and wing athletes.

Last fall, Wolves coach Chris Finch decided to emphasize defense in practices. Now a team whose two best players — Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns — are offensive standouts is winning largely because of an excellent defense headed by Gobert.

Which brings us to the Twins.

They have taken wildly different approaches to roster-building under President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey.

Before the 2019 season, Falvey and his staff determined that power hitting was going to be more important than high on-base percentages. They signed Nelson Cruz to add reliability and punch to the middle of the order, then set a big-league record for home runs in a season that rewarded raw power. They won 101 games.

Last year, they determined that with rules changes favoring baserunning and fielding, they wanted to emphasize starting pitching, defense and speed. They remain a team that looks statistically dependent on home runs, but they were also able to steal bases in key situations, and their fielding range, even without Byron Buxton in center field, helped support outstanding starting pitching. They won their third division title in five years and their first playoff series since 2002.

Their plan for the 2024 season has become obvious, and to many fans, illogical.

Vocal fans are offended that the Twins lost their second-best starting pitcher, Sonny Gray, and replaced him with marginal starter Anthony DeSclefani.

In a perfect world featuring an unlimited payroll, the Twins might have simply sought a replacement for Gray and he'd be reporting Wednesday in Fort Myers, Fla., with the rest of the pitchers and catchers.

Instead, they have again embraced one of baseball's recent trends: limiting the exposure of non-star starting pitchers.

In broad strokes, modern analytics indicate that having a non-star starting pitcher face a lineup for the third time is self-defeating. "Five (innings) and fly'' used to be a phrase used to insult a starter in baseball clubhouses. Now, for every Twins starter other than Pablo Lopez, it may be the goal.

So instead of replacing Gray with one outstanding starter, they are building a bullpen that may replace him one inning at a time.

The closer: Jhoan Duran, who can touch 103 mph. The primary setup men: Reliable lefty Caleb Thielbar, righty Brock Stewart (who might have, overall, the best stuff of any Twins reliever), Griffin Jax, Jorge Alcala, righthanded sinkerballer Justin Topa and lefty Kody Funderburk.

On Sunday, the Twins traded utility player Nick Gordon for another lefty with good stuff, Steven Okert.

They've also added Josh Staumont and Jay Jackson.

Which leads to one of the biggest decisions to come in Fort Myers:

Do the Twins allow Louie Varland to be an end-of-the-rotation starter, or do they ask him to be the dominant late-game reliever he was last year?

If Varland is a starter, he improves their rotation depth.

If he's a reliever, the Twins' bullpen has a chance to be the best in baseball.

Last year, Varland had a 5.30 ERA and allowed a .848 OPS as a starter.

As a reliever, he had a 1.50 ERA and allowed a .471 OPS.

As a starter, he looked like an end-of-the-rotation plugger hoping to get to the fifth inning before he fell apart.

As a reliever, he looked like he had one of the best arms in all of baseball.

Add Varland to this deep squad of relievers, and Twins fans may learn to cheer when the bullpen door swings open.