Offseason Primer: Building a Badass Bullpen
Image courtesy of Orlando Ramirez and Brad Rempel, USA TodayThis story helps set the stage for a truly pivotal offseason ahead. It's just a taste of what you'll find in the 2019 Offseason Handbook, which is currently available for preorder. If you wanna learn more about it, and the benefits of preordering, check out our FAQ.
In the American League Wild Card Game last week, New York received four strong innings from starter Luis Severino before unleashing its intimidating reliever stable on Oakland's doomed lineup. Dellin Betances, David Robertson, Zach Britton, Aroldis Chapman... ballgame.
The Twins can relate. One year earlier they'd been bounced in the same ballpark, after a bottomless Yankees bullpen ate their lunch following Severino's first-inning exit.
Of course, the A's had made it into this position on the strength of their own stellar pen, which carried them to stunning regular-season success and made up for a wholly unspectacular rotation. Look around at the rest of the remaining teams, and you'll find plenty of deep, dominant relief units.
Which brings us to the Twins.
They finished the season with exactly two reliable relievers. The good news is that those two – Taylor Rogers and Trevor May – had a hell of showing in 2018, solidifying themselves as fixtures.
Rogers has fully graduated to top-tier status, having finished with a 2.63 ERA and 0.95 WHIP after closing his year with 28 straight scoreless appearances. His 2.33 FIP ranked ninth among MLB relievers, and fourth among those who made 70+ appearances. Once a lefty specialist (and a great one at that), Rogers is now an all-purpose shutdown arm and easily Minnesota's best bullpen asset.
May shows signs of being able to join him at this level of distinction. He was nothing short of spectacular in his return from Tommy John surgery, turning in a ridiculous 36-to-5 K/BB ratio in 25 innings. Take out his disastrous lone outing as "opener" (1 IP, 4 ER) and the right-hander put up a 1.73 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and 13.3 K/9 after joining the team in late July following Tommy John rehab.
He averaged a career-high 94.1 MPH with his fastball, pounded the strike zone, and induced a 15.4% swinging strike rate, which would've ranked among the top 10 AL qualifiers. May finished the year as closer and looked very much up to the task.
Rogers and May are 27 and 29, respectively. Both remain under control for multiple years. So, that's the good news.
Elsewhere? Plenty of not-so-good news and uncertainty.
I'm not sure you can make a strong argument that any other incumbents are locked into the 2019 bullpen.
Addison Reed is probably closest, solely by virtue of his contract. He's owed $8.5 million next year as part of the two-year pact signed in January, so he'll get every opportunity next spring, but Reed showed nothing to indicate he's capable of being any kind of positive contributor.
His 4.50 ERA was bad and his 5.11 FIP was worse. His fastball velocity was way down. He missed three weeks in July with elbow soreness and came back looking even worse, allowing an .842 OPS with just 8% swinging strikes the rest of the way (in 2017 he was at 13.7%).
It's very obvious that Reed's arm was not close to 100% for the majority of the year, but evidently Minnesota never discovered structural damage and so no action was taken. The Twins have little choice but to hope several months of rest will cure what ails him.
Trevor Hildenberger, too, looked completely broken by season's end. The reigning top Twins reliever bounced back from a rocky spring and put together a solid first half, but collapsed in the second. In August and September, he allowed more than a run per inning (9.55 ERA) and a .965 OPS, fumbling away his audition in the closer role.
Much like Reed, the Twins were hoping Hildy would be a trustworthy staple, and now he's probably going to have to earn a job next spring. His greatest strengths disappeared, as his ground ball rate dropped from 58.8% in 2017 to 46.3% in 2018, as his K/9 rate dropped from 26% to 22%.
The unraveling of these clearly capable righties throws a wrench into Minnesota's bullpen planning, and also casts further scrutiny on the decision to trade Ryan Pressly, who has since cemented his rep as one of baseball's very best relief pitchers. Jorge Alcala had better pan out.
In the meantime, the Twins need to replace Pressly's impact in the bullpen if they have true aspirations for 2019.
The remaining holdover candidates – Oliver Drake, Matt Magill, Alan Busenitz, Tyler Duffey, etc. – should all be considered fringe contenders for the bottom spots in the bullpen.
This means Rogers and May are short on company at the top. General manager Thad Levine, fresh off turning down the Mets' advances, will have his work cut out for him. Last winter he showed some savvy in signing Fernando Rodney and Zach Duke, but his biggest splash (Reed) proved to be his biggest whiff.
Will Levine be gun-shy this time around, still on the hook with Reed as the largest current payroll commitment for 2019?
There are other options than free agency, of course. Trades are in play, and in fact I would wager good money the Twins acquire at least one reliever through this avenue during the winter. Meanwhile, any number of borderline starter candidates could be converted to relief. It's an approach we've seen work with May among many others. Zack Littell, Kohl Stewart, Fernando Romero or Lewis Thorpe could be intriguing in this regard.
Needless to say, there's a lot at play here. We'll lay it all out for you – free agent options (+ what they'll cost), realistic trade targets, and an in-depth feature on the closer situation – in the 2019 Offseason Handbook. Preorder it today and you'll get your copy ahead of the official release.
- nicksaviking, Oldgoat_MN and nclahammer like this