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Bullpen Competition Gets Crowded

Twins officials have been insistent throughout the offseason that they wished to bolster the bullpen by acquiring a veteran reliever. On Friday they got their guy, signing 36-year-old righty Matt Belisle to a one-year, $2.05 million deal.

Let's take a look at how this addition alters the bullpen landscape, and who figures to be the odd man out.
Image courtesy of Matt Kartozian, USA Today
First, 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.

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63 Comments

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KirbyDome89
Feb 06 2017 12:03 AM

That Tim Stauffer comparison isn't helping to make sense of the Park DFA....

 

If one of the relievers is getting the boot i would rather see Boshers go and Tonkin stay. 

I think Rogers is a lock. He pitched really well last season and he might take another step forward. 

 

My bullpen would be:
Kintzler

Belisle

Pressly

Rogers

O'Rourke

Chargois

Duffey

 

Maybe O'Rourke is redundant with Rogers on the roster, but I really like O'Rourke, but Molly has to use him as a LOOGY. If he's not willing, then I would keep Haley.

 

I also think Chargois had a very good August-September and he should take another step forward. I hope he can take over the closer role by the end of the season, but we'll see.

 

Boshers is fine depth, but Rogers and O'Rourke are better. Pat Light looked lost in the majors and he should spend most of 2017 in AAA. Michael Tonkin just isn't that good and Molly only used him in low-leverage situations. I'd be fine losing him on waivers.

 

I'm swapping May's and Duffey's roles, but if management thinks Duffey can still be a starter, then Haley or Tonkin can take his spot.

    • TheLeviathan, Vanimal46, SF Twins Fan and 1 other like this
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HitInAPinch
Feb 06 2017 03:10 AM

I think a solid case for Tonkin being overused last year can be made.I have to wonder if he was "arm weary" at the end of the season.But that fastball is straight as an arrow.Gotta minimize his exposure [much like a closer] and make better use of his slider. And like you said, Tonkin barely made the roster last spring.I lean on the "move on" side.

 

The rest of the bullpen is still taking shape.Would love to see more of the young guys get MLB auditions this year. 

 

There's new management.I doubt they'll feel too much towards Perkins, other than can he pitch now and actually help the Twins. 

 

And, [as I've posted before] at a bare minimum, I want to see Berrios [and maybe Duffey] in the Twins bullpen and getting more MLB exposure.

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diehardtwinsfan
Feb 06 2017 04:13 AM

My pen:

 

Kintzler
Pressly

Belisle
Rogers

Tonkin

Chargois

 

One of O'Rourke, Hildenberger, or Melotakis I'd give Hildenberger and Melotakis every opportunity to win that job.

 

I'd put Duffey in AAA, but I'd probably keep him has a starter. This also assumes Hughes is starting. Hughes will likely be with the team, and I'm not sure we can assume he's going to be on the 60 day DL to start the season.

    • glunn and Yossarian like this

The thought just occurred to me last night, about Duffy being the closer.  He seems to have the stereotypical demeanor.  It was him and Chargois at Rice, correct?  As co-closers?  If Andrew Miller can become the multi-inning Hydra type weapon, then maybe Shaggy and the Duff-Man can become our two-headed Hydra.  Too bad one's not a lefty.

    • glunn likes this

Rogers, Pressly, Kintzler, and Belisle appear all but set. I'd prefer to see the 'pen rounded out with the likes of Tonkin, Chargois, and the best lefty between Melotakis, Boshers, or O'Rourke. 

 

Belisle took the role that I had Duffey penciled into - so I'd guess Duffey will get to head to AAA to start the year. If the team wanted to run 13 pitchers on the roster coming out of spring training, I could see that last battle coming down to Duffey vs. Haley (Realistically, unless Haley is terrible in spring, that's a battle he's going to win. Rule 5 pick vs a guy with options? Tough fight for Duffey to win.) 

 

At this point, I'm 100% in favor in running all the young arms out there. Lets see what this group can do at the big league level. 

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nicksaviking
Feb 06 2017 08:21 AM

If we're playing predictions, mine is Kintzler, Pressly, Chargois, Belisle, Hughes, Rogers and O'Rourke. But I would like to find room for Tonkin initially and Melotakis, Duffey and Hildenberger in short order.

 

    • Carole Keller and glunn like this

I'm not convinced that deciding between mediocre RPs is really a make or break decision for Falvine, frankly. 

 

Me? I'd prefer more young guys getting shots. Their arms getting healthier.....

 

I would also prefer Hughes back in the bullpen, unless there is a miracle and he can throw hard as a starter. I think Nick has it right, prediction wise.

    • Carole Keller and nicksaviking like this

Young arms.  Nothing in this article gets me excited about Belisle.  He is just another filler and its time to move on from that to getting the young arms firing.  Tonkin has not impressed me.  If he nailed the first three batters and then had trouble I would see the over use, wrong use argument, but he just is not reliable.  There are enough other players on this team that need to be tested.  I prefer Duffey.  I also prefer both Berrios and May over Santiago.  I want upside, not just okay. 

    • Mike Sixel likes this

Did you say ground ball tendencies? That's good, with Sano and Polanco out there?

The only long reliever candidates mentioned are Haley, Duffy, and Hughes. Gotta have long reliever.

Unless someone gets hurt in spring training, Kintzler, Belisle, Chargois, and Pressly are locks as are Boshers and Rogers. Tonkins is the odd man out.

In a rebuilding year, I would rather take a chance on fixing Tonkin's hard contact than hoping Belisle is serviceable and maybe flippable. And Tonkin's trouble is not a straight fastball. He throws only 4-seamers that Brooks classifies as 2-seamers. Of course I've been rooting for Tonkin for years.
    • glunn, Mike Sixel and Vanimal46 like this

 

The only long reliever candidates mentioned are Haley, Duffy, and Hughes. Gotta have long reliever.

Unless someone gets hurt in spring training, Kintzler, Belisle, Chargois, and Pressly are locks as are Boshers and Rogers. Tonkins is the odd man out.

In a rebuilding year, I would rather take a chance on fixing Tonkin's hard contact than hoping Belisle is serviceable and maybe flippable. And Tonkin's trouble is not a straight fastball. He throws only 4-seamers that Brooks classifies as 2-seamers. Of course I've been rooting for Tonkin for years.

 

I wouldn't call Chargois or Boshers a lock. Perhaps part of Plan A though.

 

Agree they need a long guy in some form, would be disappointing if they put Tonkin in that role again.

My pen:

Hughes (long reliever) 

Kintzler 

Pressly 

Rogers
Belisle 

Chargois 

Open competition between Boshers / Hildenberger / Melotakis / other AAA reliever

With the addition of Belisle, I'm not sure Haley sticks as a Rule 5 pick.... Tonkin experiment is over. 

 

I wouldn't call Chargois or Boshers a lock. Perhaps part of Plan A though.

 

Agree they need a long guy in some form, would be disappointing if they put Tonkin in that role again.

 

If Chargois isn't on the roster, are they just punting on using any young RPs? That would make no sense to me at all. In fact, it would greatly disappoint me.

    • KGB and DocBauer like this

 

If Chargois isn't on the roster, are they just punting on using any young RPs? That would make no sense to me at all. In fact, it would greatly disappoint me.

 

As I said, probably Plan A. But if he's terrible in the spring they shouldn't force him on the roster.

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LA VIkes Fan
Feb 06 2017 11:24 AM

It depends a lot on what they do with Hughes and Duffy. I think Hughes and Duffy will both be on the MLB roster and it's likely that both will NOT be starting if Santana, Gibson, Santiago, May and Berrios all look good in ST to be in the rotation. They key battle really is whether Hughes can/should start. I'm assuming no. So, the bullpen could be Hughes, Kintzler, Pressley, Rogers. Belisle, Chargois, Duffy if Berrios starts with no room for Haley. The other alternative would be starting Hughes and keeping Haley with Berrios starting the year in AAA. Third option would be Hughes on the DL to start the year or pitching rehab with both Berrios and Haley on the big club.

 

Given the moves so far, Tonkin in gone and there is no room at the inn for the other young AAA and AA relievers.  Tonkin's perfomance suggests a less than 50-50 chance he will be picked up on waivers, particularly at the end of spring training when teams are looking to protect their own younger type relievers. It is a risk worth taking. Same for Boshers and O'Rourke. For those of you who want to see some of the young guys get a chance, I agree and I think there will be plenty of opportunity  during the course of the season through injury and ineffectiveness for people to get an audition.

 

The one other possibility is an 8 man bullpen which would leave only a backup catcher, backup DH/1B type like Vargas, utility man like Escobar, and a fourth outfielder like Grossman to constitute the bench. That leaves D Santana out in the cold which is not such a bad thing.  I can only see this happening if the team decides that they really want to keep Haley and can't work out some kind of deal with the Angels.

 

Soooo, I think the battle for the "last" two spots on the roster this spring will be between Hughes (who wins if he's healthy), Duffy ( who also wins unless they want to send him to AAA as a starter), Berrios and Haley. All of this goes right out the window as soon as there's an injury or if Hughes isn't ready to go. My bottom line prediction is that Hughes will start the season some kind of rehabilitation assignment, Duffy will be in the bullpen, May will be in the starting rotation, Berrios will also be in the starting rotation, and Haley will be on the roster either after a deal with the Angels or instead of DanSan. Hughes will be ready to pitch about May 1 and will come into the starting rotation if anyone is not pitching well or has an injury (most likely scenario) or into the bullpen in place of the least effective reliever if all of the starters are performing well. Perkins is done.

    • glunn, Mike Sixel and DocBauer like this
This sounds so difficult for a team with some of the worst pitching in baseball. Somebody should be expendable.
    • glunn, Mike Sixel, Doomtints and 3 others like this

For the investment I would really doubt if Hughes is going to be in the bullpen. Either you can pitch following TOS, or you can't.

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TheLeviathan
Feb 06 2017 12:54 PM

This kind of "crowded" isn't inspiring.

    • lukeduke1980 likes this
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lukeduke1980
Feb 06 2017 01:49 PM

These things really end up working themselves out because 3 guys will come out of spring training with injuries and 3 other guys will be injured a month into the season.  

 

 

    • glunn and Vanimal46 like this

 

This sounds so difficult for a team with some of the worst pitching in baseball. Somebody should be expendable.

 

This is why they shouldn't have bothered to nitpick on the margins.  Draw a line down the middle and half of them go now.  The other half have a year to prove themselves.

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Tom Froemming
Feb 06 2017 02:05 PM

Some of the young arms should emerge eventually, but out the gate Chaggy is the only one worthy of breaking camp. Melotakis is on the 40-man, and should be pushed harder in his second season removed from Tommy John, but he could use at least another few months in the minors.

 

Jake Reed is coming off a strong season, but it's not like he's dominated MiLB hitters. Nick Burdi needs to show he can just stay healthy for an extended period before he enters any call up conversations. Trevor Hildenberger has been amazing, he's maybe the next guy after Chaggy who most deserves a shot based on performance, but he's never even been to Rochester yet.

 

Matt Belisle isn't going to block anyone. If one of the guys on the farm dominates, they'll find a way to give him an opportunity. It's likely somebody gets hurt (like Perkins last year) or is so bad they get cut (like Jepsen last year), if not by midseason they'll trade somebody away to make room (like Abad last year).

 

One way or another, the cream always rises to the top.

    • Carole Keller, glunn, LA VIkes Fan and 2 others like this

 

These things really end up working themselves out because 3 guys will come out of spring training with injuries and 3 other guys will be injured a month into the season.  

Agreed. Whether it's injury or ineffectiveness, this group of names will sort itself out soon enough. 

 

Some of the young arms should emerge eventually, but out the gate Chaggy is the only one worthy of breaking camp. Melotakis is on the 40-man, and should be pushed harder in his second season removed from Tommy John, but he could use at least another few months in the minors.

 

Jake Reed is coming off a strong season, but it's not like he's dominated MiLB hitters. Nick Burdi needs to show he can just stay healthy for an extended period before he enters any call up conversations. Trevor Hildenberger has been amazing, he's maybe the next guy after Chaggy who most deserves a shot based on performance, but he's never even been to Rochester yet.

 

Matt Belisle isn't going to block anyone. If one of the guys on the farm dominates, they'll find a way to give him an opportunity. It's likely somebody gets hurt (like Perkins last year) or is so bad they get cut (like Jepsen last year), if not by midseason they'll trade somebody away to make room (like Abad last year).

 

One way or another, the cream always rises to the top.

Hildenberger's numbers are flat out nasty, I read in his bio on MLB.com that he's a sidewinder and can throw over the top? Who does he best resemble delivery-wise?

    • glunn and Oldgoat_MN like this
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nicksaviking
Feb 06 2017 03:27 PM

 

This sounds so difficult for a team with some of the worst pitching in baseball. Somebody should be expendable.

 

Yeah, too many guys who aren't terribly good but also not too terrible that you willingly want to DFA them.

    • Mike Sixel likes this

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