Do The Twins Need A Proven Closer?
Image courtesy of Troy Taormina, USA TodayThe 2017 Twins season was, in some ways, a banner example of the closer label's fungibility.
In the past, Minnesota has been guilty of vastly overrating the importance of ninth-inning experience, to its own detriment (*coughMATTCAPPScough*). But this past season, we saw Brandon Kintzler, a veteran with zero career MLB saves prior to overtaking the role midway through 2016, excel as an extremely reliable door-slammer. He converted 28 of 32 saves and made the All-Star team before being traded to Washington.
Good reliever = fine closer.
After Kintzler went to the Nationals, Belisle took over in the ninth. The 37-year-old had never in his career served as a regular closer. During the final two months, he converted nine of 11 saves.
Good reliever = fine closer.
These instances seem to confirm something most of us already knew: there's nothing supernatural about pitching in the ninth inning. And with this in mind, the urgency of adding a reliever with such experience during the offseason is lowered. The Twins have at least one player who could plausibly open the 2018 season as closer, with others in line to get a shot in the near future.
Trevor Hildenberger: Hildenberger was fantastic as a rookie in 2017, with his stellar mix of strikeouts and grounders proving extremely reliable. He rose to the occasion time and time again in big spots. He got both righties and lefties out. And he has plenty of experience closing in the minors. But he's also 26 with only 42 innings logged in the big leagues. This, too, is problematic: pigeonholing him in the ninth stops him from being available to Paul Molitor in those key mid-game high-leverage spots where Hildenberger was a godsend this year.
I'm not sure you can make a strong case for anyone else internally being ready to take on the closer job now. But as soon as mid-season in 2018, several others could emerge as legit options.
Tyler Duffey: The 2017 season was a frustrating one for Duffey, who flashed overpowering stuff at times and posted solid peripherals (3.72 FIP) but could never get into a prolonged groove in terms of results. It's important to remember, though, that he hadn't previously pitched out of the bullpen since 2013 and was in the Twins rotation mix all the way up until the end of spring camp. If he prepares for 2018 as a reliever, and comes back with an extra tick or two on his fastball to complement his power curve, he's certainly got the makings of a closer. He was a dominant one in college at Rice University.
JT Chargois: Duffey's co-closer at Rice has been on the path to a late-inning role in the majors ever since being drafted, and looks to me like a closer in waiting. He has the pedigree and potency, no doubt. But he lost almost his entire 2017 campaign to an elbow injury, so he'll need to come back and prove himself effective before any kind of high-leverage assignment is on the table.
Ryan Pressly: It was a weird year for Pressly. You look at so many elements of his game and see the profile of someone who could close. His fastball burns in at 96 with a complementary slider at 90. His 3.2 K/BB ratio, 1.16 WHIP, and 50% grounder rate all signaled a quality bullpen weapon. If he could translate his second-half performance (2.62 ERA, .582 opp OPS) over a full season he'd be a perfectly suitable closer. But he's gotten in his own way too often to be counted on. A sustained run of setup excellence in April and May next year could change the narrative.
Gabriel Moya: Acquired for John Ryan Murphy in a late-July trade, Moya had a phenomenal season closing at Double-A, saving 24 games with a 0.77 ERA and 0.77 WHIP, plus a 13.4 K/9 rate. The stuff played in his first taste of the majors, producing a 12.4% swinging strike rate (tied with Pressly for highest in pen) and holding opponents to a .206 average, albeit in a small sample of seven appearances. He performed very well against righties. Moya is definitely a sleeper for the gig but won't be in the mix until midseason.
Tyler Jay: The true sleeper in this discussion. Like Chargois, Jay endured a lost season in 2017, but now he's back in the Arizona Fall League and proving he's healthy. After dealing with shoulder and neck issues again this summer, there were rumblings he'd need thoracic outlet surgery, but has repeatedly tested negative for that condition. Like Chargois, he has the stuff and pedigree; it's just a matter of staying healthy and showing what he can do.
FINDING A PLUG
The six players listed above are realistic candidates to be good relievers, and as our earlier arithmetic suggests: Good reliever = fine closer.
But no matter how much you want to downplay it, there is an added element when it comes to pitching in the ninth. There's unique pressure as a hurler faces the reality that small mistakes can turn a win into a loss very quickly.
Any team, especially one with an offense like Minnesota's, can bounce back from a bullpen hiccup in the middle innings. When you're at the very end of the game? Not so much. Kintzler and Belisle converting a combined 86% of their save chances is an underrated factor in Minnesota's 2017 success, and the Twins need to try to replicate that efficacy in late lead protection.
While neither Kintzler nor Belisle had history as a closer, or even a particularly dominant relief pitcher, they did have this arguably essential attribute: lots of experience in the big leagues.
So if the Twins want to hold off on anointing one of the relatively inexperienced relievers as closer, it would make sense to find at least an interim veteran plug. Ideally, they'd do so without paying the premium for closer experience.
Who on this year's market could be the next Kintzler? In our upcoming 2018 Offseason Handbook (preorder now!), we lay out the free agent reliever landscape. Wade Davis, of course, sits at the top of the pack, and is really the only bona fide "Proven Closer" in the group. Others like Seung-hwan Oh and Fernando Rodney have the experience but are somewhat shaky bets.
These are some names that catch my eye as I survey what's going to be out there:
Brandon Kintzler, RHP: If you're looking for a Brandon Kintzler type, you could always sign... Brandon Kintzler. The Twins will have an opportunity to re-sign the 33-year-old right-hander after sending him to Washington for the final two months of the season. He's familiar and well liked in the clubhouse. But they'd also be buying high on a guy coming off his best MLB season – also a season where his 4.9 K/9 rate ranked third-lowest out of 155 qualified relievers.
Steve Cishek, RHP: Cishek has a very similar profile to Hildenberger. He's a right-handed sidearmer who gets lots of ground balls and strikeouts. He has been a very consistent performer over the course of his career, with an ERA+ of 109 or above in each of his seven seasons. Though he served exclusively in a setup role for the Mariners and Rays this year, the 31-year-old has plenty of closing experience with 121 saves and an 83% conversion rate in the big leagues. The distinguished track record will make him a pricey commodity.
Jake McGee, LHP: There are many things to like about McGee. He's a strikeout pitcher with excellent control (four times as many K's as walks in his career). He's a left-hander who shuts down righties. He has experience in the ninth inning (44 saves), as well as in the playoffs (six postseason appearances). He's been durable and fairly reliable. It'd take a sizable multi-year deal to get him, but the 31-year-old could be a great veteran anchor in a young bullpen going forward.
Luke Gregerson, RHP: Over the course of his career – spent with the Padres, A's and Astros – Gregerson has mostly been a fantastic reliever. But he's coming off his worst season, so it's possible he could be had at a relative discount. In the Offseason Handbook, we suggest Gregerson could be viewed as a "rich man's Belisle." He's got tons of experience (623 MLB appearances) and has a rep as a strong clubhouse guy, but he also has been much better all-around, and gets tons of strikeouts with a heavily deployed slider.
Koji Uehara, RHP: It's entirely possible that Uehara decides to hang up the cleats. He turns 43 next April, and had the second half of his 2017 season ruined by knee and back issues. But if he wants to give it one more go, he'd be a welcome addition for the Twins on a one-year deal. When healthy, he's as reliable as they come, and was lights-out in the first half this year. He could hold down the closer role until one of the young guys emerges.
What's your view of the closer situation as we head into the offseason? Are you comfortable with an internal option? Would you aim high for a name like Wade Davis? Or does one of the other free agents listed (or another) make more sense to you?
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