La Velle E. Neal III
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FORT MYERS, FLA. — As a starter, Jhoan Duran's fastball reached the high 90 miles per hour range on the radar gun, and his split-fingered sinker — the "splinker" — was a pitch no one knew existed.

The 6-5 righthander seemed to have the tools to be a frontline starter. The Twins have tried to develop or trade for an ace for what seems like a generation, and Duran was their best candidate in recent years.

As a reliever, Duran's fastball has approached 104 mph. And he still throws the splinker, which topped out at 100.8 mph last season, the fastest recorded breaking pitch in history. But he also featured a curveball that discombobulated hitters geared up to hit his fastball.

Duran was devastating at times as a rookie last season as he was 2-4 with a 1.86 ERA, eight saves and 89 strikeouts in 67⅔ innings.

As the Twins still search for their elusive ace, it's tempting to wonder what could have been if Duran had continued his career as a starter.

Don't go there, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said.

"We have a guy we think is one of the absolute most electric pitchers in the entire world," Baldelli said. "There are very few people who are good at their job than what he does.

"The daydream? I daydream about him closing big games for us. I don't daydream about him starting. Could he have done it? Absolutely, he could have done it to one extent or the other."

Duran suffered a knee contusion on Sunday when he was struck by a line drive during live batting practice, but Baldelli said he should be fine.

This is the era of the flamethrower. Max effort monsters now roam the Earth, those who have big arms and the technology available to get the most out of their deliveries. They often lack a third pitch.

The average four-seam fastball in Major League Baseball last season was a record 93.9 mph. In 2021, 1,829 pitches were thrown at 100 mph or more. In 2022, a record 3,356 were thrown at least 100 mph.

Despite 2022 being his rookie season, Duran was the king of these beasts. He led baseball with an average fastball of 100.8 miles per hour and throwing 392 pitches at least 100 mph. His splinker came in at 96.4 mph. But opponents, most likely worried about Duran's heat, hit just .120 off his curveball. By the end of the season, Duran was closing games — and styling while doing it with a little hop after big strikeouts or by pounding his chest following the third out.

Nope. Duran should not be seen pitching in the first inning. Ever again.

It's not like the Twins had much of a choice.

A little over a year ago, there was still internal debate whether Duran should start or relieve. He joined the Twins in 2018 as part of the trade involving Eduardo Escobar and made 80 starts in the minors. But he never threw more than 115 innings in a minor league season — not quite enough to move forward with him in that role. Then there was the lost 2020 season due to COVID and a 2021 season in which he threw just 16 innings before landing on the injured list with an elbow strain that some feared needed surgery. He avoided surgery, but the lack of an innings base influenced their decision. Some also felt his delivery, which forces him to twist toward first base during his follow through, wasn't repeatable the deeper he pitched in games.

As interesting as it would have been to see if Duran could have thrived as a starter, he's likely better off as a late-inning stud. At age 25, Duran has the chance to be one of the best relievers in baseball for several years, provided he can follow up on the blistering start to his career.

"It's hard to be more effective than he was last year," Baldelli said, "[but] he has minor parts of his game that he's trying to improve."

So the Twins will look elsewhere for an ace. They have the closer figured out.