Can the Twins Be Competitive With Their Current Bullpen?
Image courtesy of © Peter G. AikenSimply the arrival of new pitching coach Wes Johnson, who led the Arkansas Razorbacks to a 3.58 ERA in two seasons with the program, and the return of catcher Jason Castro to the team are surely going to make a huge difference for the Twins. Here are some other factors that could result in the bullpen becoming a solid unit in 2019.
Players who can bounce back
After an awful 2018 overall, there are at least two pitchers who could be expected to bounce back this year considering their track records. Both of them had quality numbers not long ago, but are coming off rather bad seasons in 2018. Addison Reed, who is in the last year of his two-year, $16.75 million contract, could be the greatest lift for this staff. He had a disappointing season last year, but even then he’s shown signs of the good pitcher he had been before.
During his first 31 games of the season, Reed posted a 3.03 ERA with 8.6 K/9. But then, in the remaining 24 games he appeared on the mound, he had a 6.56 ERA. He had a 4.50 ERA on the year, his worst since 2012.
There isn’t much statistical evidence that shows he would improve much in 2019. FanGraphs projects that he will have a worse ERA of 4.90 and fWAR of -0,1 (which would be an improvement in comparison with the -0,2 he had in 2018). But I think it’s safe to say that a pitcher with a career ERA of 3.53, who had had three consecutive solid seasons before last year, is not meant to have another terrible year.
Reed's velocity has dropped considerably from 2017 (92.8 vFA) to 2018 (91.3 vFA), but possibly that’s due to the fact that he dealt with a triceps injury in late June, which had him go to the DL for most of July. When he came back, he posted a 3.60 ERA in the last 14 games of the year.
Trevor Hildenberger is another player poised to have a good 2019. Most Twins fans are still patient with him because he had a stellar start of his career in 2017 and maintained that performance (or maybe improved it) during the first half of 2018.
In the first 42 games of last year, Hildy posted a 2.80 ERA, held opponents to a .201 batting average and posted a 9.2 K/9. But just like Reed, his performance plummeted down after mid-July. In the remainder of the season, he had a 9.64 ERA, giving him a 5.42 ERA on the year. Unlike Reed, he is projected to improve a lot this year. FanGraphs estimates that in 2019 his ERA will improve to 4.04 and his fWAR will rise from 0.0 to 0.2. Those numbers aren’t great, but projections aren’t perfectly accurate. If the previous months of his career are an indicator, that rough finish to 2018 was nothing but an accident.
Both Reed and Hildenberger were missed a lot in the second half of last year, but I think they aren’t done at all. If they manage to recover, the Twins bullpen will see a great improvement. But a lot also depends on the next category of players.
Maintaining their performance
Four of the Twins’ current relievers had very solid 2018 seasons: Taylor Rogers, Blake Parker, Trevor May and Matt Magill. If they manage to keep the same kind of numbers this year, Minnesota will be able to achieve consistency from its bullpen. Rogers is the stud of the relief group, having had an amazing season. He posted a team-best 2.63 ERA, 2.33 FIP and 1.9 fWAR. Such numbers are in consonance with his previous two seasons in the majors and his entire minor league career. Nothing ralistically indicates that he is about to have a bad season this upcoming year.
Parker joins the Twins on a very cheap, basically no-risk contract. He signed with Minnesota for one year, with a salary of $3.2 million. If he manages to maintain the same level from the last couple of seasons, the Twins got themselves a pretty good deal. He arrives in Minnesota after two absolutely solid years with the Angels. In both he’s reached at least 66 1/3 innings, posting a 2.90 ERA and 3.55 FIP, with 10.5 K/9. Parker’s 2017 was stellar, whereas his 2018 was “just good”. But even that “just good” would work for the Twins. He turns 34 in June and since he has prior closing experience, he is possibly the main candidate to take over ninth inning duties.
The 29-year-old Magill had his breakout with the Twins last year, having started his stint with the club in late April. He went on to appear in 40 games, striking out 56 batters in 56 2/3 innings. During his first 15 games in the majors, he managed to keep a below 2.00 ERA. In 17 of his 40 games he pitched more than an inning, making him one of the most dependable men out of the bullpen in 2018. It’s uncertain if he will remain with the club after Parker’s signing, but he certainly did a decent job last year.
After spending 2017 recovering from Tommy John Surgery, May came back strong to the Twins. Even appearing in only 24 games in the year, he managed to get 0.5 fWAR, while also striking out 12.8 per nine. His velocity seemed virtually unchanged (94.4 vFA) in his return. It was a smaller sample, but 2018 was by far his best year in the majors. If he manages to repeat that this year, May could be another cornerstone from that bullpen.
Converting starters into relievers
Assuming the six aforementioned cases work out the way they could, the Twins would have one or two spots to fill. That’s exactly where most fans would like to see a big free agent signing. But, if they decide to work with one of their in-house options, what would be the best way to go? They could hand over the job to one of the young pitchers currently in the 40-man roster, such as Andrew Vasquez, Lewis Thorpe, Gabriel Moya or John Curtiss. But there might be another safer and more effective way.
Two young starters could become relievers and provide a strong help out of the pen. Zack Littell hasn’t had very long to show his stuff in the majors, having pitched only eight games for the Twins last year. But one thing was clear: He’s done a much better out of the bullpen than as a starter/opener. In 13 1/3 innings out of the pen, he’s had a 4.05 ERA. He could get another shot in 2019 if the Twins decide to use a 13-man pitching staff. His ERA is projected to improve from 6.20 last year, to 4.62 this year.
On the other hand, if the club decides to use 12 arms, then the most appealing option would be converting Fernando Romero to reliever. The young Dominican had an amazing first stint in the majors. He had 11 starts for the Twins and has finished the first year with a modest 4.69 ERA, but that’s mainly due to a couple of really bad starts.
In his first five starts, Romero posted 1.88 ERA while striking out 9.2 per nine. It’s uncertain how well he would do pitching out of the bullpen in the majors, given the fact that he’s done that very little during his minor league career. But, when he did, he was superb. He’s pitched only 18 1/3 innings as a reliever in the minors, but posted a 0.49 ERA. That’s definitely worth experimenting in the Majors.
Now it’s your turn. What do you think? Can the Twins be competitive with the bullpen as it’s currently constructed?
This is Thiéres Rabelo's debut article at Twins Daily. You can follow him on Twitter @TwinsBrasil.
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