Over the Hill? Recovered lefty on track for Twins rotation

Published 3:34 pm Wednesday, July 8, 2020

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — When the Minnesota Twins signed Rich Hill from the bargain aisle of free agency last winter, they expected the left-hander to be available around midseason after his recovery from elbow surgery.

Now the 40-year-old is on track to be ready right away, thanks to the virus outbreak that shoved the schedule back by four months and shrunk it to 60 games.

The Twins, who open on the road against the Chicago White Sox on July 24, are setting up a rotation with Hill in it. The 15-year veteran faced hitters at Target Field on Monday, logging four simulated innings in his latest step forward in yet another injury comeback.

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“There’s a lot of people who put in the time and the effort and gave me their time to make sure that I can be in the best position possible to go out there and perform,” Hill said Tuesday on a video conference call with reporters. “I put in the time and put in the effort, and it’s definitely paid off. I feel great, and yesterday was just one step in the right direction.”

Over the last four seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Hill went 30-16 with a 3.16 ERA in 361 1/3 innings with 427 strikeouts. His opponents’ batting average since 2016 is a stifling .209.

Hill missed nearly three months in 2019 with a strained flexor tendon in his left forearm, before returning in September and starting Game 4 of the National League Division Series against the eventual World Series champion Washington Nationals. Subsequent testing showed Hill’s ulnar collateral ligament had actually detached from the bone, but at his age he opted against the longer rehabilitation that would have come with the Tommy John surgery he’d already had once.

He instead had a primary revision procedure in late October to repair the UCL rather than replace it, and the Twins gave him a one-year contract for $3 million guaranteed with performance bonuses that offered the potential to more than triple that figure. Now, of course, he’ll only make about one-third of what would have been paid for a full season, but the second-oldest active player in Major League Baseball, behind only Albert Pujols, didn’t pick the Twins for the compensation.

“What we’re capable of as a group is winning the World Series,” Hill said.

José Berríos and Jake Odorizzi, both All-Star selections last year, will be the top two starters. Then there’s Kenta Maeda, a teammate of Hill’s with the Dodgers who arrived in an offseason trade. Homer Bailey, another pre-pandemic winter addition, brings another proven resume.

Jhoulys Chacín was invited to camp on a non-guaranteed deal. Minnesota prospects Randy Dobnak, Devin Smeltzer, Lewis Thorpe and Sean Poppen will also get long looks, though the shortened schedule will likely give the edge to the more experienced candidates. That’s a formidable group, even without accounting for Michael Pineda, who’ll be available in September after serving the 36 games remaining on his suspension for taking a banned diuretic.

“We’re deeper than we think we are, as far as starters. Potentially six or seven guys could run out there on any given day,” catcher Mitch Garver said.

Pitching coach Wes Johnson said Tuesday his preference would be to begin with a standard five-man rotation, but with a larger roster and only six built-in off days the Twins are unlikely to push their starters deep into games. They’ll probably designate at least two long relievers.

Having Hill available to start sure would go a long way toward giving Johnson and manager Rocco Baldelli more resources to work with.

“He just went out there and worked and followed a plan as closely as you could do,” Baldelli said, adding: “This is just the next step for him. He knows this is not the end all, and he’s just doing everything he can to be ready for the first week of the season. I would bet on him being ready.”