In Win-Now Mode, Twins Keeping Graterol in Bullpen
Image courtesy of Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY SportsGraterol's role for 2020 has been an open question all offseason. He had worked almost exclusively as a starter in the minors up until last summer, when he returned from a two-month injury hiatus as a shutdown reliever. His dominant debut out of the bullpen included a convincing September stint with the Twins, and a shutdown inning against New York in the ALDS.
Obviously, he would offer more ostensible impact out of the rotation, which is why many observers would like to see him further developed in that role. Still only 21 years old, Graterol could easily start the 2020 campaign back at Triple-A, reacclimating to the routine and building up stamina.
But, based on pitching coach Wes Johnson's comments at a Winter Caravan stop in St. Cloud this week (via MLB.com writer Do-Hyoung Park), it doesn't look like that's in the cards:
The key phrase in Park's tweets: "So the balance is finding MLB innings without pushing it." Clearly the Twins want to leverage their high-powered weapon in short order – and why wouldn't they? He was virtually lights-out as a 20-year-old rookie in a pennant race. Graterol has the very real potential to rank among the American League's most valuable relievers right now.
In theory, he has also has the ultimate potential to be an ace starter, and he has looked that part at times in the minors. Chasing this upside would be a hazardous gamble for the Twins, however.
Firstly, Graterol has never thrown more than 102 innings in a season. Bringing him along as a starter would require stringent workload management throughout the summer, and even then, you have to wonder how comfortable the (hopefully contending!) Twins would be pushing him into uncharted late-season territory under duress.
Secondly, the process of building Graterol up toward a 100 pitches/game, 200 IP/year regimen requires using up a whole lot of bullets, even it proves to be a futile exercise. History tells us that guys who throw this hard at age 20 don't do it for long. In terms of raw juice, Graterol's arm is at its peak right now. There's a "diminishing returns" dynamic at play.
Combine these natural effects of physiology with the necessary max-effort trade-offs that come a starter's workload, and it's entirely possible that the Graterol we eventually see as a starter is a far cry from the flame-throwing force we witnessed in 2019.
And that's all assuming he stays healthy. Because the final point is that – even if you downplay the progressive attrition caused by throwing meaningless innings in the minors – injuries can strike at any time. Graterol is living proof. He signed with the Twins at age 16, threw 11 innings, and then didn't pitch in a game again for two full years due to injury. He seemed to be in the clear after a healthy 2018, but landed on the shelf again last May with a shoulder impingement, which sidelined him for two months.
Given his undeniable durability concerns, it behooves both team and player to opt now toward short stints in the majors; Graterol can accrue MLB service time at age 21, while the Twins can fully unleash him at the height of his physical prowess, amidst a full-fledged championship push.
If you find yourself feeling a little disappointed by this development, which all but subtracts Graterol as a hypothetical wild-card in Minnesota's currently ace-less 2020 rotation, let me leave you with three things:
1: Graterol can be a massive difference-maker out of the bullpen right away, lessening the burden on the rotation in turn.
2: Graterol wasn't going to be a factor for the Twins as a starter this year. Even if he avoids injuries entirely, there was no scenario in which he was going to handle a starter's workload all season long, and still be available for October.
3: A relief billing now does not rule out the possibility that Graterol can transition back into a starting role in the future. It's important to remember how young he is. At the same age, Johan Santana was still destined for three more seasons vacillating between rotation and bullpen, before blossoming as a Cy Young starter. Another example I like to cite: Adam Wainwright spent his first year in the majors as a full-time setup man, then threw 200 innings as a starter the following year.
For a multitude of reasons, going with Graterol in the bullpen is the right decision at this moment for the Twins. If this were three or four years ago, and the franchise was still gazing toward a future window of contention, I might argue differently. But as I wrote earlier this week, the game has changed.
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