Bullpen Competition Gets Crowded
Image courtesy of Matt Kartozian, USA TodayFirst, some words on Belisle and what he brings to the table. My hope going into this offseason was that the Twins would aim for higher upside, seeking to entice a late-inning weapon such as Neftali Feliz or Greg Holland by dangling a potentially open closer job. On a short-term contract, saves are money.
Belisle doesn't fit that profile, but isn't a bad get by any means. Dating back to 2010 he has a 3.47 ERA, 3.08 FIP and 1.26 WHIP. His velocity and whiff rates don't scream "dominance" but he has been a very effective reliever for a long time. What he lacks in strikeouts he makes up for with sharp control and consistent ground ball tendencies. Over the past two years he has allowed only three home runs in 80 innings.
The well-traveled vet has also spent those two seasons playing for division winners, which was undoubtedly a big part of his allure. In 2015 Belisle made 34 appearances for a 100-win Cardinals team. Last year, his Nationals won 95 games. Given all the talk we've heard about bringing in an experienced player with leadership qualities, it's clear this factor weighed heavily.
Belisle looks like a trustworthy middle-innings guy who can give you multiple innings when needed. In essence he is a rich man's Tim Stauffer, and a good bet to fulfill the role Terry Ryan envisioned with that ill-fated signing two years ago.
But his presence exacerbates a numbers crunch in the bullpen. There will be some interesting scenarios playing out when the pitching staff reports to Ft. Myers in a week.
If we're working under the (probably safe) assumption that Glen Perkins will not be on the Opening Day roster, then these are the relievers we can basically consider locks:
Brandon Kintzler, RHP
Ryan Pressly, RHP
Matt Belisle, RHP
Taylor Rogers/Buddy Boshers/Ryan O'Rourke, LHP
Barring injuries, those four will be there. Kintzler, Pressly and Belisle have guaranteed contracts and of course Paul Molitor will need a left-hander at his disposal. In fact, he'll probably want at least two in this age of specialized bullpens, and I would suggest that closer-in-training JT Chargois should be pretty close to a lock as well after finishing strong with the Twins in 2016.
In a seven-man bullpen, those assumptions would leave one spot open. There are three different players who all have a fairly strong case, but two are likely to be left out - from the roster, and maybe even the organization.
First, there's Michael Tonkin. We all recall his unfulfilling 2016 campaign, which yielded a 5.02 ERA and 1.45 WHIP. On the surface, he looks like the unfortunate but obvious underdog. At least, he would be if the old regime were still in charge. Tonkin barely made the roster last spring and did not perform well during his lengthy audition.
I would argue, though, that his struggles were tied to misuse. Formerly a dominant Triple-A closer, the flame-throwing righty was thrust into a long relief role, and the extended outings seemed to take a take a toll as he wore down late in the year. I suspect (and hope) that Derek Falvey and Thad Levine are curious to see what Tonkin can do in shorter stints. His tremendous success in the minors and his established ability to strike out big-leaguers make him tough to give up on.
The team's decision to make room for Belisle by designating Byung Ho Park for assignment confirms their enduring faith in Tonkin, who is out of options. It looks like they intend to give him a real chance this spring.
But where would that leave Justin Haley? The Twins had the No. 1 selection in December's Rule 5 draft and decided that out of everyone available, the 25-year-old right-hander was the guy they wanted. Unless they can work out a trade, they must either keep him on the active roster or lose him.
With the urgency to repair this pitching staff being as high as it is, the front office cannot get this wrong. If they expose Tonkin to waivers and he gets claimed only to excel in a more fitting role elsewhere, it looks bad. If they send Haley back to Boston and he turns out to be a quality big-league arm, it looks bad.
These are the kinds of early missteps that Falvey and Levine can ill afford if they want to win the respect and trust of the fan base (not to mention lingering Ryan loyalists within the organization). So the stakes will be high as they evaluate these two players in Florida. And we haven't yet even mentioned one other name that should be in the discussion.
Up to this point the team has been mum regarding its plans for Tyler Duffey. There is a common belief that he's best suited for the bullpen, based on his two-pitch arsenal and his background as a dominant closer in college. There hasn't been any indication that he'll be shifted to relief right away, but it looks like his best path since he's behind both Trevor May and Jose Berrios for the final rotation spot.
The Twins have the luxury of taking it slow with Duffey, who has options remaining. They could send him to Rochester in April and allow him to hone his skills in relief. Though he's a likely candidate to succeed – especially if he can add a few ticks to his fastball – it has been a long time since he's pitched in that capacity.
Then again, if they try this out in the Grapefruit League and he's firing bullets, how do you send him to the minors? He's a deep sleeper to ultimately take over the ninth-inning gig. Let's not forget how bad Perkins looked in his final run as a starter before almost immediately becoming a lights-out late inning asset.
These are intriguing storylines, and there are a few others that could emerge. For instance, what if Perkins is healthy and strong enough to fill a role out of the gates? What if May's transition back to starting doesn't pan, and they opt to slide him back to relief? What if Phil Hughes needs some ramp-up time in the bullpen? There's also minor-league signing Ryan Vogelsong, who some feel is very likely to make the roster with a decent spring.
Injuries happen, of course, and the Twins are setting themselves up well for that. But if this group can get through spring relatively healthy, it's going to set up some pivotal decisions at the end of March.
- David HK likes this