Varland wins spot in Twins rotation after teammate's injury

FORT MYERS, FLA. – The Twins always anticipated Louie Varland pitching important innings for them this season, but any uncertainty about his role and whether he'd make the Opening Day roster disappeared Monday.

Anthony DeSclafani had a setback with his elbow, which could require season-ending surgery, and Varland will fill the fifth spot in the Twins' starting rotation.

"He's prepared to take a place in our rotation from the beginning of the year and we'll just keep watching him pitch," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "He looks really good right now. I know I'm happy with what I've seen. I think our pitching guys are very pleased with the adjustments he made this offseason and some of the additions he's added to his repertoire."

Varland, the St. Paul native, showed up to spring training ready to compete for a job. He didn't take it easy as he built up his innings. He's developing a two-seam fastball, though he's barely thrown it in Grapefruit League games.

The Twins, like all teams, don't place much weight on spring training statistics, but Varland made it hard to ignore his performance. He hasn't permitted a run in 11 innings. He might have been lined up to start the season in Class AAA because he could be optioned to the minor leagues, unlike DeSclafani, but DeSclafani's injury ended the camp competition.

"He's done nothing but work hard, keep his head down and not get distracted by his situation and other peoples' situation," Baldelli said of Varland. "The guys that start to overthink those things get super stressed out about those things. They tend to struggle because of those ways of approaching things mentally. Louie does a really good job of just focusing on making good pitches."

Varland, the 26-year-old righthander, emerged as a weapon out of the bullpen during the Twins' playoff run last year. He gave up two runs in 12 innings as his fastball jumped to 99 mph and his cutter was nearly unhittable. Baldelli raved about how he looked in the bullpen following the season.

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As a starting pitcher last year, he had a 5.30 ERA in 10 starts while yielding 14 homers in 56 innings. Opposing hitters had a .256 on-base percentage in their first plate appearance against Varland during his starts, a .307 OBP in the second plate appearance and a .417 OBP when they faced him a third time.

The Twins, who lost Sonny Gray and Kenta Maeda through free agency, opted to keep Varland as a starting pitcher. They could revisit a role in the bullpen later in the summer, if necessary, but there is optimism he will take a step forward as a starter.

More than looking at Varland's spring stats, the Twins are watching the development of his secondary pitches and how he uses them in hitter-friendly counts.

"The key is you just don't want to be in a position — as a young pitcher — to be in fastball-oriented counts and only be able to throw your fastball," said Derek Falvey, the Twins' president of baseball operations. "That gets you in trouble. That's what big league hitters tell you and teach you pretty quickly is that's what you need to do. He's been challenged to work on that, and I think he's done a good job of being able to use off-speed pitches in non off-speed counts."

The Twins aren't ruling out signing a pitcher to add starting depth, but that would more likely be someone on a minor league deal.

Varland maintained he was fine with whichever role the Twins wanted, and he was going to do anything he could to make the Opening Day roster.

Monday, amid unfortunate injury news, he had his answer.

"We always believed in Louie in that [starting] role," Falvey said. "We wanted to have as many options as possible and that lined up pretty good."