Twins ponder difficult bullpen decisions as J.A. Happ progresses

SARASOTA, Fla. — There’s plenty left for Twins decision-makers to sort through in the upcoming days before breaking camp and heading north, and those involved in the push for roster spots aren’t making the decisions easy.

Kyle Garlick, battling for an outfield spot, hit his fourth home run of the spring on Sunday. Willians Astudillo, also competing for a roster spot, hit a home run of his own and showed off his versatility, starting the game at first base and finishing it behind the plate. JT Riddle, a non-roster invitee who is still in camp, also added a longball.

While there are still a couple of spots to be decided on the position-player side, the Twins have discussed more creative options, like piggybacking or — seemingly less likely — a six-man rotation to begin the year on the pitching side. That’s a decision that could potentially hinge upon the guy who started Sunday: J.A. Happ.

Happ, a 38-year-old left-hander who signed with the Twins in January after pitching the two previous seasons for the Yankees, threw 49 pitches in his three-inning effort against the Orioles, up from the 29 he threw in his first spring start. Happ’s start to the spring was delayed after he tested positive for COVID-19, forcing him to miss the beginning of camp. Happ gave up five runs, four earned, while striking out two on Sunday.

“Physically, I was hoping to go out there and get close to 50, 45 pitches and come out of it feeling good, and I did that,” Happ said. “Just trying to just kind of remember it’s still a little bit early, even though I obviously still want to have a lot of success here. But overall, I think it went fine.”

Happ said his hope would be to get up to around 70-75 pitches by the time the Twins leave Fort Myers.

But if need be, president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said earlier Sunday, piggybacking — where a long reliever is scheduled to pitch in tandem with a starter, who usually is limited in innings — is a topic they’ve discussed.

“We’re monitoring where he’s going to be at relative to breaking camp. If he were to be short relative to his normal workload, we could think about that in the context of a piggyback or a tandem where you have somebody who can give length behind it,” Falvey said. “Our view of it is let’s see how this plays out over the next week to 10 days and figure out where we are from a health standpoint.”

If it’s unneeded — as it very well might be with Happ ramping up his pitch count and feeling good while doing it — Falvey still said they would “likely have at least one length piece on our major league team to break camp that could give us a multi-inning role out of the bullpen.”

That’s a role both Lewis Thorpe, who has come on in relief in each of Happ’s last two games, or Randy Dobnak could take on. Thorpe gave up his first two runs of the spring Sunday and has a 2.35 earned-run average spanning 7 2/3 innings. Dobnak, meanwhile, has thrown 8 2/3 innings and has yet to give up an earned run.

If the Twins carry an eight-man bullpen to begin the season, it’s possible that their final decision will come down to Thorpe and Dobnak, who are starters by nature but have served in both roles for the Twins in the recent past. And with all of the Twins’ other starters — Kenta Maeda, Jose Berrios, Michael Pineda and Matt Shoemaker — healthy, Thorpe and Dobnak haven’t been making the decision easy.

“I think as we get closer to the end of camp, really thinking about how the bullpen builds out in its entirety and what kind of role each guy could play, that will impact our decision for sure,” Falvey said. “But they are, they’re different pitchers, I think, and both, we think, are capable of starting and could be that swingman role. … We view them similarly in that sense.”

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