Prospect Spotlight Series: Bullpen Help
Before we get into it, here’s a look back at the players I’ve covered in this series so far:
Each of the previous installments of this series focuses on a specific aspect of a player's game or homes in on a particular performance. This will be more of an overview.
We’re in the era of the 13-man pitching staff. Every team in baseball cycles through a great number of relievers each season, but there figure to be plenty of opportunities in the Twins’ bullpen this coming season.
Relief Candidates on the 40-Man Roster
The only relief pitcher who still has prospect status is Andrew Vasquez, but there are also all those starting pitchers who debuted last season who appear to be on the outside looking in. Might it make sense to give one of Chase De Jong, Stephen Gonsalves, Zack Littell, Kohl Stewart or Lewis Thorpe a shot in the bullpen?
None of those guys have pitched much in relief, and some don’t fit a typical reliever profile, but it wasn’t long ago you could have said those same things about Taylor Rogers. There’s already been some talk of Fernando Romero (who is no longer technically a prospect) getting a look in the pen, maybe the Twins will consider a conversion for one of these prospects.
Romero may have the most tantalizing arsenal of that group, but it's interesting to note that both Littell and Gonsalves had better strikeout rates in Triple A last season. Romero averaged 6.8 K/9 in 90 2/3 innings with Rochester while Gonsalves was at 8.5 K/9 in 100 1/3 innings and Littell had 8.3 K/9 in 106 innings.
Back to Vasquez, in terms of true relievers, he ranks third on the lefty depth chart behind Rogers and Gabriel Moya. There's a great chance he'll see time in the majors again if that remains the case. The Vasquatch has dominated the minor leagues, pitching to a 1.52 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 13.4 K/9.
Who’s Next on the Farm?
Before we get to the prospects, there are a few minor league veteran guys who have an outside chance at working their way up into a low-leverage role. Guys like Ryne Harper, Dario Alvarez, Mike Morin, Zack Weiss and Jeffery Ames. I’m sure the Twins will add a few other relievers on minor league deals.
Some of those guys won’t even last through spring training, but others will get an opportunity to show what they’ve got in Rochester. This front office seems to be intrigued by fringy relief pitchers, though they’ve mostly acquired them through waivers (Matt Magill, Oliver Drake, David Hale, Dillon Gee, Nik Turley and Drew Rucinski among others). I assume they’ll continue to be active on that front as well.
The guys this front office do not seem to like are all the relief pitchers drafted in the earlier rounds under Terry Ryan. Jake Reed is pretty much the last man standing among that group. He’s 26-years-old and has 61 Triple-A appearances under his belt, so what are they waiting for?
Well, behind Reed’s sterling 1.92 ERA in the 89 innings he’s pitched for the Red Wings the past two seasons is a less impressive 8.4 K/9 and 3.4 BB/9. Still, production is production, and Reed should be the first man up if the front office is in the position where they need to add a relief arm to the 40-man roster. It’d be a shame if he doesn’t get a look at some point.
Another name of note in Triple A is Ryan Eades. Drafted in the second round as a starter back in 2013, Eades has primarily worked out of the bullpen the past two seasons. After posting just a 6.9 K/9 in 2017, he hiked that all the way up to 10.4 K/9 last season. The really great part was that he also lowered his walk rate from 3.4 BB/9 to 2.6 BB/9 last year.
Eades was outstanding in the six starts he made, posting a 0.45 ERA and 0.90 WHIP, but the longest he went was four innings. Could he be the perfect opener? Eades is 27-years-old, so there’s really no use in leaving him in the minors should an opportunity present itself.
Behind Reed and Eades is another bunch of guys who’ve only reached Double A. Tyler Jay is certainly the highest-profile name among them. For me, the question is does the velocity come back? If it does, I could see Jay move up very quickly. If not, well, he didn’t exactly inspire confidence by posting a 4.22 ERA and 1.58 WHIP last season.
So let’s forget about Jay for a minute. The name I really want you to come away from this article with is Cody Stashak. The Twins converted him to the bullpen last season and it was a roaring success. The 24-year-old right-hander was one of the best pitchers in all of Double A.
It’s not like Stashak was a failed starter by any means. In 2017, Stashak had a 3.89 ERA, 1.10 WHIP over 16 starts. His strikeout rate was a fairly modest 7.8 K/9, but he was certainly getting the job done. Stashak was forced to the DL in late July, had a few rehab appearances out of the bullpen with the GCL Twins, then made his final three outings of the year in relief for Chattanooga.
I’m not sure the reasoning behind why they decided to keep him in the bullpen, but it’s looking like a very wise decision. In 2018, Stashak had a 2.87 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 11.2 K/9. He also continued to have very good control, posting a 2.3 BB/9, giving him a K:BB ratio of 4.93.
There were 289 players who pitched 50 innings or more in Double A last season. Stashak ranked fifth in K-BB%, eighth in FIP, 12th in strikeout rate and 16th in swinging strike rate. It was basically your dream scenario when you move a guy to the pen.
Here’s a quick look back at one of Stashak appearances from last year just to give you an idea of who he is. This is every single pitch of this particular outing, so there’s no sugar coating involved. I’d hoped to pull some more video on him, but MiLB.tv was malfunctioning, so this also wasn’t a cherry-picked outing. It just happened to be the one I was able to get.
Stashak also ended the year particularly strong, allowing just two earned runs over his final 23 innings (0.78 ERA). If he carries that performance over to this season, he may be knocking at the door for his major league debut. This front office has made some eyebrow-raising decisions with relief prospects, but most of the guys they’ve passed over had some degree of wildness. That hasn’t been an issue for Stashak.
Speaking of guys who moved from the rotation to the bullpen, there’s also Devin Smeltzer, a lefty who the Twins acquired from the Dodgers in the Brian Dozier trade. He didn’t have the same type of dynamite transition as Stashak, but his strikeout rate did see an incredible jump. After striking out just 53 batters in 70 1/3 innings as a starter (6.8 K/9), Smeltzer rung up 30 batters in just 25 1/3 innings out of the bullpen (10.7 K/9) in 2018.
One guy who could be a huge x-factor is Jorge Alcala. The flame-throwing right-hander who the Twins got from Houston in the Ryan Pressly trade could really rocket up to the majors if he successfully transitioned to a relief role, not that I’ve heard that’s the plan for him. Alcala made 16 starts and another eight appearances in relief in 2018, performing about the same in either role. He struck out 104 batters in 99 1/3 innings last season.
Anybody who hasn’t pitched in Double A is a longshot to make it all the way up to the majors in one year, but hey, Andrew Vasquez did it.
Quite a few members of last year’s Miracle bullpen were college draftees who will now be entering their age 24 or even 25 seasons. Guys like Hector Lujan, Ryan Mason, Alex Robinson, Colton Davis, Adam Bray and Tom Hackimer. If one of them really takes off, there doesn’t seem to be much reason not to fast track them, though a Vasquez-type ascent would be surprising.
More than 160 players are featured in the Prospect Handbook.We had a ton of fun putting the book together and we’re really excited for people to read it. Recognizing these minor league players for their efforts and ability is a big motivating factor in the project, so we would love for you to pick up a copy.
Click here for more information on the 2019 Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook
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