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Twins is close to getting Jhoan Duran and Max Kepler back from injuries

MINNEAPOLIS – Minnesota Twins closer Jhoan Duran took a crucial step in his recovery from an oblique strain before Friday’s 5-4 loss to the Detroit Tigers, facing hitters for the first time since the injury in mid-March.

“I woke up and had a lot of energy today, just like my kid,” Duran said. “It was cold outside, but it was good.”

Duran threw 21 pitches during a pre-game batting practice at Target Field against teammates Jose Miranda and Jair Camargo, reporting no discomfort.

“He was going to throw 20 and he wanted an extra one, so that shows he’s feeling good,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He looked like himself. He looked very comfortable and he looked like someone who was almost ready to take on some hitters in real games.”

Barring a setback, Duran should soon be cleared to begin a multi-appearance rehab assignment with Triple-A St. Paul. Initially feared to be sidelined well into May, there is now optimism that Duran could return in late April, which would provide a major boost to a battered 6-12 team that needs all the help it can get.

“I think this does a lot of good things for our team and our bullpen,” Baldelli said. “It pushes guys into some different roles and our bullpen gets even thicker at that point.”

Stocking up on quality relievers was clearly an offseason priority for the Twins, who built one of the majors’ best bullpens on paper, but Duran, Justin Topa and Caleb Thielbar went down with injuries in spring training. Duran and Topa have yet to throw a pitch, and Thielbar missed the first two weeks, but somehow the Twins’ patchwork bullpen has still managed to be a strength.

Twins relievers have combined for a 2.70 ERA with 87 strikeouts in 67 innings, holding opponents to a .208 batting average. They have the American League’s highest strikeout rate by quite a large margin, and they are also among the top five bullpens in ERA, in opponent batting average, walk rate, strikeout-to-walk ratio, average fastball velocity and added profit opportunity.

To do that without Duran, the Twins’ most valuable reliever and one of MLB’s most overpowering weapons, is impressive, and it suggests the bullpen does indeed have a chance to be among the league’s elite units once he returns. Duran has a 2.15 ERA with 173 strikeouts in 130 career innings and led the majors with an average fastball velocity of 100 mph (163.8 km per hour) last season.

Max Kepler, who began a Triple-A rehab assignment with the Saints by playing as designated hitter Thursday and Friday, will likely bounce back against Duran against the Twins after he returns from a right knee contusion on Sunday or Monday.

“We’ll make a decision after he’s done playing in the outfield, right where he’s at, and we’ll make a decision,” Baldelli said. “I think it’s close. But I want him to tell us he’s done before we can call.”

Kepler rolled his knee on opening day, missed two games and then struggled through a 1-for-16 stretch before being placed on the injured list on April 9. Once he is deemed ready to return, Kepler is expected to return to the role of player. Twins’ starting right fielder and jump back to the middle of the lineup.

This is Kepler’s eighth stint on the injured list since 2020, and the 31-year-old soon-to-be free agent has a lot to prove in what could be his final season with the team that signed him as a 16-year-old from Germany. 2009. The second half of last year was the best extended stretch of Kepler’s career, as he hit .306/.377/.549 in 66 games to reverse a years-long decline.

Now more than ever, that’s the kind of production the Twins desperately need from Kepler, and it’s also the kind of production that could net him big money on the open market this season if he has back-to-back above-average hitting campaigns for the first time since 2019 and 2020. As a group, Twins right fielders have hit .141 this season.

There’s no timeline yet for Carlos Correa’s return from a mild intercostal strain, but Baldelli said the shortstop’s rehabilitation has “been pretty positive” so far and that he “could be close” to testing the injury with rotational movements.

Correa will be eligible to come off the 10-day injured list early next week, but it seems unlikely he will be ready by then. Fill-in shortstops Willi Castro and Kyle Farmer have struggled offensively and defensively in his absence, and Friday’s loss dropped the Twins to 2-5 without Correa in the lineup.

(Photo: Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)