Building for Primetime
Image courtesy of David Berding-USA TODAY SportsIt's been a long time since Twins fans last had the luxury of contemplating things like pennant races and playoff rotations and jockeying for home field advantage. I can't remember ever having any such thoughts before the end of May. But we're at a point where talking about the Twins as likely postseason entrants and World Series contenders is not fanciful. It's almost obligatory.
Throughout the entirety of a drawn-out rebuilding process that began with a 99-loss season in 2011, Minnesota has been future-focused. At their best (in 2015 and '17), they straddled the line, scrapping for an unlikely postseason berth while keeping their eyes trained on a championship window to come. Here in 2019, if perhaps slightly ahead of schedule, the window has been thrust open. The future is now.
There is nothing fluky or superficial about the stunning success of this Twins team. Finding weaknesses is tough. The lineup continues to reaffirm that its unparalleled 1-through-9 power and run-scoring prowess are for real. The rotation has no blatant holes. (Michael Pineda gets some flack, but all his numbers outside of a bloated HR rate – and correspondingly high ERA – are quite good for a fifth starter.)
And the bullpen has, thus far, been beyond respectable. As Matt Braun concluded in a blog entry here on Thursday, "These guys have actually been pretty good, so lay off them for now." He makes many fair points, noting that the unit rates well in key categories like FIP and leverage metrics. There's no doubt Twins relievers have performed extraordinarily well thus far.
But as I view the Twins through this new, unfamiliar lens – sudden division favorites with legitimate championship aspirations – the bullpen does weigh on me. It's almost inconceivable at this point, given how absurdly consistent they've been since Day 1, but eventually this team will hit some turbulence. The bats will go through some quieter periods, and the starters will experience downspells or injuries. In the dog days of the summer, we will really see this bullpen tested. As much as this team has surpassed my every expectation, even the most optimistic side of me can't see it grading out too well in those moments.
And when it comes to matching up against the other kingpins in the American League? Houston, New York and Boston have deep pens custom-built for October. Tampa Bay, as usual, has a vast assortment of incredibly effective relievers that no one's ever heard of – in fact, they have the game's best bullpen ERA.
I guess you could put the Twins in the same boat as the Rays, a club they seemingly modeled their approach after. Like Minnesota, Tampa has opportunistically traded away good relievers, filling the vacancies through internal pipeline or low-wattage additions. Both teams have mostly eschewed free agency; as you watch Addison Reed get cut loose with his millions in dead money, while Blake Parker and Ryne Harper continually deliver, it grows a lot tougher to question that strategy.
The Twins are finding ways to extract the most out of their talent. Pitching coaches Wes Johnson and Jeremy Hefner are clearly getting through with good info. Rocco Baldelli's decision-making and usage patterns have been strong, from my view, and he places a clear focus on taking care of his players. All these factors help elevate a group toward its true potential.
Still, unless some sort of supernatural enchantment is at play (and it's getting a little harder to rule that out with each passing day), no objective onlooker can view this bullpen with great confidence going forward.
Taylor Rogers is clearly awesome. I'm willing to buy into Parker, although his 1.10/3.87 split in ERA/FIP points to a clear luck element to his ridiculously good results thus far. After those two, the Twins have:
- Trevor May. Sadly not anywhere near the same guy he was last year. His swinging strike rate is down to single digits (from an elite 15.4% last year), because his stuff isn't compelling people to swing outside the zone, which is also leading to too many walks. May's throwing as hard as ever and it isn't hard to envision him turning that corner, but so far he hasn't.
- Ryne Harper. There's no knocking his splendid performance up to this point. But he's a 30-year-old MLB rookie whose fastball sits in the high-80s. He's going to need to keep doing it for quite a while longer before lifting all shrouds of doubt.
- Matt Magill. The Twins were believers. They had him in their bullpen plans before an injury sidelined him to start the year, and since joining the team in late April, Magill has validated their faith. He might be one of the least intimidating-looking pitchers in baseball but his spectacular velocity – 95 and 88 on average with the fastball and slider – belie his aesthetic. He has ridden that stuff to copious strikeouts and a 1.80 ERA. This is clearly a higher-caliber pitcher than we saw last year, but everyone recalls the way his hot start turned ice cold in 2018.
- Mike Morin. He has thrown strikes and gotten people out. (8.1 IP, 6 H, 0 BB, 1 ER). What more could you ask? But it's only nine appearances. He's also a 28-year-old who has thrown 24 MLB innings over the past two years, and owns a 3.99 career ERA in Triple-A.
- Austin Adams. Can't help but be impressed by his arm out of the gates. He throws even harder than Magill, and looked dominant in two outings before getting blown up by the Angels on Thursday. His nightmare outing in Anaheim (0.2 IP, 3 H, 3 BB, 5 ER) will set his numbers back for a while. And it served as a reminder: As good as some of these relievers look at times, and as much as the Twins might be optimizing their repertoires and usage, these are still pitchers signed to minor-league contracts, drawing zero demand from the league at large. Him, Magill, Morin, Harper. And the next guy can more or less be placed in the same group.
- Tyler Duffey. He almost certainly would've been waived from the 40-man roster during the offseason, if not for holding an option that allowed the Twins to stash him at Triple-A. Now he's in the Minnesota bullpen and looking very much like the dominant reliever we all dreamed he could be. Duffey is finally showing some bite on his heater, and in combination with his ever-vexing curveball, it's piling up strikeouts.
Depth is of the essence. And that's where the pressing concerns emerge. The front office was planning around Trevor Hildenberger and Fernando Romero (and maybe Reed) as key late-inning contributors, but at present both are struggling as part of a GHASTLY bullpen at Rochester:
The Triple-A rotation hasn't been so hot either. There's no credible help at the highest level of the minors. Double-A is a little more interesting, and on Thursday, Brusdar Graterol's presence in Minneapolis raised considerable intrigue among the fan base. It sounds like Graterol was here for evaluation, but the idea of a call-up wasn't that far-fetched, which says quite a lot for 20-year-old pitcher (and for the Twins' underlying need). He's been absurdly dominant in Double-A. Alas, the right-hander recently dealt with a trapezius issue and the Twins will smartly place his welfare ahead of the team's.
With that in mind, who's going to help this bullpen? The internal reinforcement slate at present is not inspiring. The MLB Draft is suddenly less than two weeks away, meaning that Craig Kimbrel is about to be freed from his burdensome compensation pick tether. That'll fire up the discussions around him again, which is fair. But I maintain that the trade market is a superior avenue. That's how the Astros acquired the best reliever in baseball (from the Twins, unfortunately) and it's a big part of how Tampa constructed its bullpen.
The Twins are sneakily well positioned. Their relief corps has performed well, so no trade partner is going to be able to leverage it as an urgent weakness against them. At the same time, the Twins are more motivated to be proactive than other big-market contenders, who are largely flush with high-paid, established options.
Will this press them to make a hard push for Kimbrel on the other side of the draft? Or to be aggressive early in the trade market and snatch a big arm? I'll be interested to find out.
Most of all, I'm just giddy to be be in a position to think about such things.
- Mike Frasier Law, brvama, Oldgoat_MN and 7 others like this