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Replicating the Relief Success in Minnesota

Prior to the 2018 season the Minnesota Twins acquired a few free agent relief arms on one-year deals. Needing to shore up the bullpen, and close the widening gap in that area, the goal was to give Paul Molitor a better arsenal. Fast forward to 2019 and relief help is a necessary target once again. While bringing in some sort of top tier talent isn’t something to shy away from, Minnesota has had two very strong revelations play out in relief. Both Trevor Hildenberger and Taylor Rogers have developed nicely from within, but the question is can that be replicated and who’s next?
Image courtesy of © Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Back in the 2013 Major League Baseball draft the Twins selected Kohl Stewart with the 4th overall pick. After peaking at 28th in the Baseball Prospectus top 100 in 2015, his fall from grace has been both long and hard. Stewart never possessed good strikeout stuff on the farm, but from his ERA darted the wrong way each of the past two seasons. Even with those concerns, he was the first prospect called upon down the stretch by the Twins and he turned in 36.2 IP during his big-league debut.

Employing the opener strategy, Minnesota subjected Stewart to just four traditional starts. His other experience came in the form of piggybacking off an initial reliver. What’s interesting about the output though, is that Stewart benefitted by avoiding the first inning. Working as a traditional starter, Kohl posted a 6.61 ERA across 16.1 IP while never making it out of the 5th inning. In the next four games with an opener, he lasted at least five innings three times and owned a 1.33 ERA with a .424 OPS against.

Regardless of the situational improvement, Stewart’s strikeout stuff didn’t change much. While going good he still tallied just a 13/9 K/BB. The .185 BABIP was reflective of a guy that generated ground balls over 55% of the time when he was on his game. A guy like Stewart has significant value if he can keep the ball in the yard and generate easy outs. By being stingy in surrendering line drives, batters were rarely able to exploit a pitcher that wasn’t setting them down.

It’s not as though Stewart saw a significant jump in velocity when working in relief, after all the intention was to still have him pitch significant innings. What he did change in his latter outings was the reliance on his curveball. After utilizing his bender just 8% of the time in his four starts, he went to it nearly 14% of the time after the opener. A heavy fastball and curveball mix helped to keep opposing hitters on their toes.

Recently turning 24 years-old, there’s probably no reason to completely shut the door on Stewart continuing to work as a starter. He’ll likely begin the year at Triple-A serving as depth for the big-league club. That said, Fernando Romero remains ahead of him, and both Stephen Gonsalves and Adalberto Mejia make more sense in the rotation than the pen. With Stewart stretched out some, working him into somewhat of a long man role could be an enticing possibility.

It took longer than desired by fans (and likely Kohl himself) for the former first rounder to reach the big leagues. Now that he’s made his debut and we’ve gotten a taste of what it may look like, there could be a role in which he thrives to an even greater extent. As the roster evolves players are always going to look for their best opportunity to contribute. For Kohl, a relief role could unlock a heightened level of effectiveness and help the Twins to build on an area of deficiency in the process.

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Enjoyed this article. Stewart has a place on this team IMHO and you seem to have nailed it.
    • MN_ExPat likes this

Just not sure where Kohl fits, if he does.September is a fun month to experiment, but it is not an experiment that carries a lot of weight.

    • DannySD likes this
Stewart is an enigma wrapped in a mystery. He has never lived up to the hype and potential or athleticism he was drafted for, or flashed. And yet, when healthy, despite low K numbers considering all his potential, be still produced some numbers that made you wonder what could be.

He only had 6 appearances, 5 starts, before his ML debut. I still don't understand that, but was pleasantly surprised for the move. And I saw what everyone saw, a very mixed bag.

I 100% agree with Gonsalves staying as a SP. He has demonstrated "pitchability" to keep him viable. I never expected him to "dominate" when first brought up. He's a "pitcher", not a thrower, lacking that BIG pitch to buckle anyone. Mejia could still be a SP. The build and stuff says he could be so with more consistency. But his stuff would also seem to indicate he could streamline his approach and just worry about an inning or two as a viable asset out of the pen if he can't find a role as a starter.

And while some believe Romero could be a real asset in the pen, and be could be, he is ahead of all of these guys in pure stuff and potential. Over time, some have referenced the Cardinals as a team that had success with young pitchers working out of the pen before transitioning back to the rotation. But the way baseball is changing in regards to bullpen usage and designated starters, I would think Romero, followed by Gonsalves and Mejia, would be way ahead of the pecking order in breaking in a young arm at this point.

Barring a surprise, I agree Stewart will be at Rochester to begin tbe6season for depth. Maybe we will see a sudden development. It would be nice.

But when we talk about Stewart, and a role in the pen, possibly as a long or middle man, I reflect on Magill, 5yrs older, and a journeyman to this point. He needs to cut down on the HR ball and walks. He is nothing special, though he performed at least adequately in 2018. But I saw enough of his appearances with mid 90's FB and a devastating slider to wonder what he could do with just a little more consistency.

I just haven't seen anything from Stewart, thus far, to indicate he has the potential to even equal what Magill showed at times. The best thing he could do would be to spend at least a half season at AAA and refine his stuff and attack hitters.
    • dgwills likes this
Dec 07 2018 07:48 AM
Since we decided to go the cheap route by signing Schoop and Cron, I’m really hoping they’re now setting their sights on signing 1-2 of the big bullpen arms on the free agent market.

However, when it comes to Stewart, I say you give him a shot to start in ST, but unless something drastically changes about the situation or his performance, just put him in the pen; In similar role that the Astros put Colin McHugh and Brad Peacock (former starters).

Even if we don’t sign any of Parker, Herrera, Britton, or Allen, looking beyond 2019, I’m confident that the Twins could potentially have a strong homegrown bullpen with young young arms like Jovani Moran, Derek Molina, Cody Stashak, and (especially) Jorge Alcala starting to reach the upper levels of the minors. And depending on how the rotation situation plays out, Thorpe, Mejia, and Stewart could be included as well.
    • Monkeypaws, Dman, caninatl04 and 1 other like this

I'll be curious to see how Stewart "develops" in the next year or so. I thought Ted's use of stats to show how much more effective he was when he didn't start a game was an eyebrow raiser. Hmm... maybe the bullpen MAY be his best landing spot.

    • ChrisKnutson likes this

I also like the idea of signing Soria. His injury history is a bit of a worry, but if he's healthy and in shape he can also be a valuable arm in the bullpen.

Hildenberger and Rogers are different pitchers.Rogers was a starter in all of his career in the minors and became a reliever in the majors.The same path that Swarzak and Hendricks (and Joe Nathan) followed among others.And Rogers has been successful.  


Hildenberger was awful last year, has been a reliever all his baseball career.He had the absolutely worst ERA and WPA and 3rd worst FIP, in the majors among relievers who pitched 70 innings or more.That is sucking not success.


Can Stewart or another pitcher make a successful transition into a reliever?Sure, if his fastball gains a few ticks from his 92.2 mph average as a starter, and he is mentally ok with relieving.It took May about 3 seasons to be mentally ok with it... 


Time will show, but there is no reason that Hildenberger and Rogers belong in the same sentence as far as quality goes...

    • ChrisKnutson, Dr. Evil, Tomj14 and 1 other like this
Dec 07 2018 08:47 AM
Kohl deserves a chance, depending on whether the Twins sign any starters in free agency.
Hildenberger was overused. Hopefully more situational next season.

What more amazes me is all these high/drafted relief pitchers that never panned out for the Twins.

Yes you make fringe starters into relief pitchers: Mahoney Perkins Nathan Aguilera and good old Fast Eddie come to mind!
    • caninatl04, rdehring and Nine of twelve like this
I'd move Stewart to relief, and see what happens. I think he'd be quite successful there. Mejia should be the fifth starter, unless they bring in more pitching. Gonsalves and others are AAA depth to start the year.
    • Twins33, Dr. Evil and bobs like this

The Twins have a seemingly endless list of young starting pitchers knocking on the door. A couple may turn out to be viable (or better) starters, assuming that they don't abandon the concept of a starter. Why not use the rest in the bullpen? Throughout baseball history most relief pitchers (even the good ones like, as mentioned above, Nathan) were "failed" starters. There are a lot of cases of AAAA starter --> successful MLB reliever.


Surely some combination of May, Mejia, Gonsalves, Thorpe, Stewart, Romero, Slegers, Littell, De Jong, etc. could become a formidable relief corps. Some will turn out to be stars, some will flop, and some will actually make the starting staff, but the "problem" of too many almost-there starting pitchers might be a solution to the bullpen --- and a cheap one.

    • Mike Sixel, DocBauer, ChrisKnutson and 2 others like this
I actually like Stewart as a starter more than as a reliever. His stuff seems very comparable to Gibson's. He doesn't get enough strikeouts, but he doesn't give up hard contact either. When he is going well, he gets quick outs, and can get deep into games with a low pitch count. He needs more consistency on his secondary pitches, and perhaps a better understanding of when and how to use his 4 seam fastball. Hopefully, he can get there faster than Gibson did.

I have hope for Gonsalves and Littel , they just needs very sharp command. Mejia kind of looks like a multiple inning reliever to me, though maybe he gets more chances to start. I believe he is out of options, so I think he starts the year in the bullpen.


Ted, always enjoy your articles - one of main reasons I'm a daily visitor to this site.But when I read the headline "Replicating Relief Success....", I thought this was a tongue-in-cheek headline.


Do you really believe the Twinkies have been successful in developing relievers?C'mon!!This area has been one of the biggest failures of Twins teams, especially in 2011 - today.Last year we added three FA relievers and this year we should add another three from outside.With the sole exception of Rogers, this organization has utterly failed top develop shutdown relievers(and even Rogers has not had sustained success especially as a late-inning reliever).Hildy was absolutely a disaster last uyear, particularly in pressure situations) and May's "success" was very limited (26 IP in 2018).The rest of the bullpen is just middle inning filler material, at best.


The list of failed draftees for the bullpen over the past decade is as long as my arm:

Reed, Chargois, Duffy, Jay, Bard, et.al.Do you really think Kohl Stewart is the answer with his 92mph fastball and mediocre success in the minors?For the Twins to have a chance for even a decent bullpen, I think everyone sees the need for two top FA closers this offseason to slot ahead of Rogers and Reed.Even then, this is not a championship-caliber bullpen.


It is disheartening how badly Ryan and company failed to develop any pitching despite having many high draft choices.And falvine has gone after positionn players in their two drafts, understandably, considering past disappointments from the Ryan era.Still, as things stand today, does anyone see an ace-in-the-making in the minors?Judging from the rankings, only Graterol seems possible and he has an awful long way to go.  


Hate to be such a pessimist here, but past performance in this organization provides little hope that difference-making relievers are on the way from the minors, especially not the likes of Kohl Stewart.

    • dgwills, ChrisKnutson and caninatl04 like this




One of the 4 was left exposed to the Rule 5 draft and was not taken.Guess who?

    • Danchat likes this
LA VIkes Fan
Dec 07 2018 03:20 PM

What do you guys see in Gonsalves that makes you think he could be a viable MLB starter? It sure didn't look like it last year. He looks like a AAAA starter or trade bait. Wouldn't it be better to try him as a reliever and hope he becomes Taylor Rogers? 


Also, let's not forget Mejia as a starter. ISn't he the one who has had the most actual success? I think Romero is better, but Mejia is better than the rest. I would say Romero > Mejia > Thorpe > Stewart >>>>>> than Gonsalves or Sleegers . Try the last two in the BP or trade them for prospects or as part of a package.

    • ChrisKnutson and Original Whizzinator like this

Nick Blackburn had a career 2.0 BB9, 5.4 SO9, and 3.65 ERA in the minors. 3.5 BB9, 6.4 SO9, and 3.38 ERA for Stewart. That's an awful lot of walks for someone who doesn't strike people out. Stewarts success in mlb came agains bad teams. Overall production wasn't great. He's going to have to develop a swing and miss pitch and/or significantly improve his control to have any kind of career in MLB.

It would be nice to see this happen, but I wouldn't bet on it.

    • Danchat likes this
Original Whizzinator
Dec 08 2018 11:24 AM

What do you guys see in Gonsalves that makes you think he could be a viable MLB starter? It sure didn't look like it last year. He looks like a AAAA starter or trade bait. Wouldn't it be better to try him as a reliever and hope he becomes Taylor Rogers?

Also, let's not forget Mejia as a starter. ISn't he the one who has had the most actual success? I think Romero is better, but Mejia is better than the rest. I would say Romero > Mejia > Thorpe > Stewart >>>>>> than Gonsalves or Sleegers . Try the last two in the BP or trade them for prospects or as part of a package.

I agree with this except Thorpe has proved nothing yet so it would projection entirely.
Dec 08 2018 05:35 PM
I know I already posted about the possibility of building a “homegrown” bullpen, but since we’re on the topic of “who’s a starter” and “who’s not” (specifically Stewart/Mejia); Why not just cash in on Gibby’s career year (Odorizzi too) and start the season with a rotation of Berrios/Pineda/Romero/Mejia/Stewart and the occasional use of the “opener” strategy??

I know it’s not what we would’ve hoped for going into the offseason, but with Schoop and Cron likely being the “big additions” of the offseason, we might as well give young arms like Stewart/Romero/Gonsalves/Thorpe/Mejia/Graterol/Alcala and whoever we get back for Gibby and Odorizzi plenty of chances to prove themselves in 2019. Might not give us the best chance at being competitive, but who knows?? The Rays made it work.
    • Mike Sixel likes this
I hate the opener strategy. Its stupid . And i dont want to pay to go to a game they do this.
Hildy should not be considered a lock in any way. Nor should we count on any of the prospects that haven’t done a thing. They need to add at least two good bullpen arms this winter. As far as Stewart he’s 24 and made it to the majors. I think people discredit him some because he doesn’t strike people out and that is what everyone wants. He has eventually succeeded at every level so let’s just give him a chance
Dec 10 2018 08:50 AM
Excellent article...and a heap of mind-bending comments to boot.

Thanks everyone!

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