How Twins' Non-Roster Player Pool Pitchers Could Help, Part I
Image courtesy of © Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY SportsThe Twins announced their 60-man player pool for the resumption of spring training and the eventual regular season Monday, including seven pitchers currently not on the 40-man roster. Today, let’s look at three of those seven hurlers, to see in which ways and under what circumstances the team envisions them helping during the truncated 2020 season.
It was an easy call for the team to bring Jhoulys Chacín back, as he had yet to be released from his minor-league deal when spring training was halted in mid-March, and he could provide valuable depth in the starting rotation or the bullpen. His track record and past durability make the case that he could help if Rich Hill or Homer Bailey suffers an injury during the secondary training camp that opens Wednesday.
However, there’s not much chance that Chacín will be better in 2020 than Randy Dobnak or Devin Smeltzer, unless he’s done something during this interregnum that he wasn’t doing even during spring training. When Chacín signed with the Twins in February, I wrote about his extraordinarily heavy slider usage, and how he seemed to have found the point of diminishing (even negative) returns on such usage as a starter in 2019.
As I wrote then, however, while comparing him to fellow fringe pitching addition Matt Wisler, that inflection point is much higher for relievers. For Chacín, at this stage of his career, that might be even more true than it is in general. He’s no longer a hard thrower. His four-seam fastball flattens out on him a bit, and because of his age, body type, and past injury history, it’s unlikely the Twins will be able to help him get into his legs, change the way he transfers energy as he comes down the mound, and generate more power or life on the four-seamer.
What Chacín could do, though, is transition into a short relief role, leaning entirely on his sinker and slider. With his funky delivery (featuring a stride opens him up early to home plate), and without the sheer power to be effective with his four-seamer and curve, he’s much better cast as a matchup right-hander than as a starter. The Twins would have to decide whether keeping a veteran with incentives in his deal is worth the upside of that role, and Chacín will probably have some agency there, but it seems unlikely he would want to become a free agent and try to latch on elsewhere for such a short and chaotic audition. He’ll be valuable in a one-inning opener or middle-relief role, if he comes to Target Field feeling good.
Left-hander Danny Coulombe was another good bet to make the roster, but is a little less known and (in some sense) a little more interesting. At 5-foot-10, Coulombe is a diminutive left-hander. He’s pitched parts of five different seasons in the big leagues, but spent all of 2019 in the minors with the Brewers and Yankees.
It’s important to note, though, that neither the Brewers nor the Yankees were ever hurting badly for bullpen help in 2019. Coulombe showed an ability to dominate in the minor leagues, with a 36.1-percent strikeout rate. He gets deep into his legs in his delivery and throws from a high three-quarters arm slot, which doesn’t allow him to live up in the zone. He doesn’t throw hard. However, both his slider and his curveball can be impressive pitches. They have distinct shapes and velocities, and his command of each is fairly good.
The Twins, of course, lack a traditional matchup lefty. Taylor Rogers is a relief ace who will be asked to pitch based on leverage and to get both left-handed and right-handed batters out in every appearance. Smeltzer is closer to being a starter than to being a true reliever, and is likely to be needed in a bridge role early in the season, as pitchers continue to ramp up and innings need to be covered.
Signing Tyler Clippard was nice, but having a right-handed pitcher with reverse platoon splits is not quite the same thing as having a lefty with multiple breaking balls who can befuddle lefties when needed. Batters drive a portion of the platoon split themselves, after all, and there will inevitably be left-hitting opponents against whom the best bet is a true lefty.
In that sense, the three-batter minimum could be the biggest obstacle to Coulombe fitting into an expanded bullpen. On the other hand, as I wrote during the winter, Rocco Baldelli and the Twins might find chances to take calculated risks with that rule, since a lefty hitter coming up with two outs could end an inning, and the lefty reliever brought on to face them would not then be required to come back out for the following frame. The downside of that type of gambling is less scary, too, in a world where the 13-pitcher roster limit has been scrubbed and teams will have 28 or more active players for about half the season.
Still, it will be important to use Coulombe wisely, if he’s to be used at all. Both of his fastballs have heavy action. They have plenty of spin, but don’t seem to rise or hop. They work downhill, and that will make Coulombe vulnerable against hitters who are good at elevating the ball. He’ll be at his best against flat-plane swingers, especially tall ones and guys who like the ball up in the zone.
The opposite, if anything, is true of Ryan Garton, the right-handed reliever they signed to a non-roster deal way back at the end of November. Garton had spent his first eight pro seasons in the Tampa Bay and Seattle organizations, briefly pitching in the big leagues with each team. In 2019, he made just a pair of appearances with the Mariners, and was hit hard. Like Coulombe, he’s 5-foot-10, and he doesn’t have even average velocity.
However, Garton comes directly over the top, and was able to improve his spin rate last year to get improved carry on his four-seamer. He uses a cutter and curveball off of that pitch, and has gotten better at disguising both secondary offerings. His fastball and curveball have almost identical horizontal movement and near-perfectly opposed spin axes, leading to a big movement and velocity differential without allowing hitters to see the difference between them well out of the hand.
None of this is to suggest that Garton will be a dominant reliever at any point this year. That’s wildly unlikely. It’s better to think of him as insurance against Clippard being injured or ineffective. In the past, Garton had been considered almost a matchup righty, akin to the role for which Chacín could now be suited. In 2019, though, he dominated the few lefties he saw, and if he’s able to sustain the adjustments he’s made to his release point and arm action on the non-heaters this year, he could be a useful extra arm in the event of any emergent need.
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