The New Bullpen Market Efficiency?
Image courtesy of © David Berding-USA TODAY SportsAside from adding Blake Parker, who seemed like a rather marginal upgrade, the Twins really didn’t do much to address the bullpen during the offseason. Instead they extended Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler and made several key offensive additions). Rather than adding any big-named, high-priced relievers, the Twins have chosen to roll with minor league free agent signings and their own internal candidates.
In some cases it worked remarkably well (as expected with Taylor Rogers and somewhat surprisingly with Ryne Harper), others have been serviceable but haven’t quite taken the step forward that we would have hoped (Trevor May), and some have been a disaster (Fernando Romero and Trevor Hildenberger). The Twins have relied upon the Rochester/Minneapolis shuttle and found some useful pieces, most recently in Zack Littell. Tyler Duffey has also been pretty good for the most part and Devin Smeltzer, Kohl Stewart, and Sean Poppen have provided some useful outings, both starting and in relief.
The bullpen is currently sixth in the American League in ERA and first in WPA (Thanks Taylor Rogers!). Although the Twin’s bullpen has been surprisingly effective this year, I don’t think anyone would argue that they couldn’t use at least one more late-inning shut-down reliever along with a quality middle reliever, preferably a lefty.
However, not jumping in to make a big off-season reliever signing or two is looking more and more prudent.
A quick glance at the stat lines of the top free agent relievers will show how inconsistent the signings were, Well, outside of the Yankees, unfortunately. In general, signing free agent relievers seems to be a crapshoot, as the past couple of seasons have shown. Even with the somewhat suppressed contract amounts of the last two seasons, staying clear of the FA reliever market was shrewd in that Twins avoided the burden of being committed to a potentially ineffective reliever for multiple years. This of course saves the Twins money, but more importantly it keeps them from feeling an obligation to continue running out an ineffective reliever because of money owed, as it is much easier to cut a player who isn’t tied to a large salary (as we’ve seen recently with Matt Magill and Mike Morin). It also makes it more palatable to take on added salary in a trade, whether starter or reliever.
This brings us to the potential beauty of the Twins’ plan, if it is in fact their plan. If they do decide to add relievers through trades they have a much better idea of what they are getting than they would through free agency. The Twins are obviously closely monitoring potential trade targets and are aware of how relievers have pitched recently. Although there is always the risk that a player could regress for the remainder of the regular season and/or in the postseason, the odds are certainly lower than that of an off-season acquisition. Plus, relievers who have some years of team control left tend to be younger and therefore less likely for regression than more volatile, older free agents through the remainder of their time with the Twins. Waiting gives the Twins the advantage of seeing the direction in which the potential trade target is trending. They have the luxury of going after the hot hand(s).
The Twins are in a great position to make some trades. With a stacked farm system, the Twins can afford to part with a few quality prospects to go after a high-quality reliever or two with some years of team control left, and/or go after upcoming free agents without giving up any top prospects. Falvey and Levine have done a nice job of building the farm system and definitely place a high value on prospects. They undoubtedly have a notion of which prospects are untouchable and seem unlikely to needlessly give away prospects. The front office seems keen to keep the best long- term interests of the team intact (as they should), but with a first place team they are almost obligated to strengthen the pen through some trades.
Whether or not this is something the front office cleverly plotted out or just fell into. That is, staying away from free agent relievers, testing/developing internal options, and waiting to make a trade or two (or three) appears ingenious in hindsight. We’ll find out soon enough.
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