Where would the return of baseball leave Rich Hill?

Rich Hill #44 of the Minnesota Twins looks on against the Philadelphia Phillies during a Grapefruit League spring training game at Hammond Stadium on February 26, 2020 in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Originally published on TwinsDaily.com

If baseball does in fact come back in early July as now proposed, Minnesota will finally get a chance to see some of the “impact” players that were acquired this offseason. Josh Donaldson and Kenta Maeda are big names who should be ready to go, but the other big acquisition, Rich Hill, comes with more questions.

Donaldson signed the biggest free-agent contract in Twins history, and Maeda, while less expensive (depending on how you feel about Brusdar Graterol), will presumably be in Minnesota for the next four years. Hill on the other hand, is signed for only 2020 and is guaranteed just $3 million (up to $9.5 million with incentives), so from the Twins perspective the cost and commitment is minimal. However, even at 40-years of age, Hill could prove to be as impactful of any of the other acquisitions Minnesota made.

Hill’s last season with an ERA above 3.66 was back in 2013 when he pitched for Cleveland. Since then he’s had an ERA of below 3.00 in all but two seasons. In other words, Hill has been good, in fact very good…when he’s been on the field. Which brings us to three all important questions for the man they call Dick Mountain.

Will Hill be healthy?

With Hill, health of course is the big question, and it’s unsurprisingly linked to all three questions. Hill underwent modified or experimental Tommy John surgery, which involves reinforcing the UCL with tape that has been soaked in collagen. Although it sounds like the medical equivalent of me trying to fix a leaky pipe, the good news is the recovery time is much shorter than with traditional Tommy John (or calling the plumber). And unlike our leaky pipe, we really only need Hill’s elbow to hold up for half a season. Then again, at age 40, Hill’s elbow has already gone through two Tommy John’s, so it might not be much better off than our proverbial old leaky pipe.

When will Hill be ready?

Originally Hill was hoping to make it back sometime in June, so with the season presumably pushed back to July, Hill at least has a chance to start the year in the rotation. However, with Covid-19 preventing Hill from working directly with the Twins training staff, matters become more complicated. At this point it’s unclear how Hill’s throwing program has advanced. While the Twins have become one of the teams at the forefront of using technology for player development, distance and the inaccessibility of facilities have likely made a smooth recovery a greater challenge. Teams will likely have an abbreviated spring training of about three weeks, but that doesn’t leave Hill much time.

What kind of workload can be expected?

The MLB’s most recent plan calls for approximately 80 games in 2020. With the shorter season comes increased variability, making every game that much more important. Winning and avoiding long losing streaks will be paramount, and a healthy and effective Hill would go a long way toward bolstering Minnesota’s rotation. Therefore the Twins will have every reason to try to maximize Hill’s usage in 2020. If Hill is ramped up and ready to go in July, how much can we really expect?

With a half-season, the rosiest picture would be somewhere approaching 100 innings. The bad news is that Hill threw only 58 2/3 innings in 2019 while dealing with elbow soreness. They were however, good innings, and we can hope that the surgery took care of the arm issues. If we go back to 2017 and 2018 Hill was actually pretty healthy, pitching 135 2/3 and 132 2/3 innings respectively. So maybe somewhere in the vicinity of 80 innings isn’t such a (rusty) pipe dream? Hill was mostly dealing with nagging blister injuries throughout those two seasons. While annoying, blister injuries usually only cause a brief stint on the IL, and short stints that allow Hill a little extra rest certainly wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Minnesota’s rotation was much improved in 2019 and they were able to bring back Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda (who must complete his suspension) and add Maeda and Homer Bailey to join Jose Berrios. With uncertainty surrounding a trade deadline and the likelihood of more teams being in contention due to the shorter season and postseason expansion, acquiring starting pitching could be next to impossible. A healthy and effective Hill could go a long way toward helping the Twins ascend the mountain that is baseball in 2020.