Report From The Fort: Closing Time?
Image courtesy of Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports"Knowing where guys slot in a game is helpful, at least generally from a parameter standpoint. Guys knowing what they’re preparing for and what role they generally play," said Derek Falvey on Wednesday. "But I know Rocco (Baldelli) and Wes (Johnson) have already had conversations with our guys around their role and the way they want to go about it."
The head Twins front office exec continued: "A few of our guys know they’re going to pitch in the back end of games, and that could eventually evolve into a more set person as we go. But as it stands right today, I don’t think Rocco is ready to name that. I’m comfortable with that if he is."
It appears that Baldelli is indeed comfortable with this plan. To see a rookie manager eschew such an entrenched convention of the game is surprising and, frankly, rather refreshing. Many analytical thinkers believe that the save ruined relief pitching, and I am of the same mind. When you reserve your best reliever for the end of the game, you risk letting leads slip away at pivotal moments while he stagnates in the bullpen.
Of course, just because Baldelli and the Twins are ready to enter the season without a defined closer doesn't mean it'll stay that way. The point made by Falvey is an undeniable one: relief pitchers like to know their roles, and unpredictability can lead to tension and frustration. As such, it is likely that Minnesota will eventually settle on a primary ninth-inning guy (though hopefully Baldelli will never be overly stringent or rigid in his usage).
Let's handicap that race as Opening Day approaches. Here are, in order, the guys I'd expect to accrue saves for the 2019 Twins.
1. Blake Parker
With so little clarity among the top candidates, it's pretty tough to pick a true favorite, but Parker is clearly in the back-end mix that Falvey spoke of. He is also an experienced veteran with a 2.90 ERA and 22 saves over the past two seasons. Parker has pitched well this spring with a 10-to-2 K/BB ratio and only four hits allowed in 7 2/3 innings, so his manager has to be feeling confident in what he's seen.
2. Trevor Hildenberger
From my view, Hildenberger is the best choice to handle the ninth on a regular basis. He throws strikes and gets grounders, making it tough for opponents to string together rallies and post crooked numbers against him. In his first 73 appearances as a Twin, spanning about one calendar year, Hildenberger allowed multiple runs in an outing only five times.
Of course, he then did so 10 times in his final 37 appearances last season, so he's got to regain the team's confidence. If and when he settles back into his groove, I think he's the guy.
3. Trevor May
May finished the 2018 season as closer and looked damn good in that role, converting three straight saves in the waning days of September and not allowing so much as a hit in any of them. He's the kind of strike-throwing and bat-missing force that can offer safety with slim leads in the ninth.
But there are two issues at play: 1) When he's on his game, he's also the kind of gas-hurling force you want to unleash in the highest-leverage of spots, which aren't always the ninth, and 2) He hasn't been on his game of late, with four walks and five hits allowed in 2 2/3 innings over his past four appearances. He looked noticeably flustered while struggling to find the zone on Wednesday. With a well established guy, you'd make nothing out of a brief ugly stretch late in exhibition play. But May is not that.
4. Taylor Rogers
He is Minnesota's best reliever. I don't think there's any question about that. So in a very traditional sense he'd be the logical pick for closer. But it seems telling that, even while he was almost completely untouchable during the second half last year, the Twins never really gave him a look as Rodney's replacement. That's because – more than anyone else in this unit – he's the guy you want to roll out in those most crucial of spots: runners on, big bopper coming up to the plate. Last year Rogers had the ninth-highest Win Probability Added among all MLB relievers, illustrating the way he thrived in leverage.
Perhaps most importantly, he is absolute death to left-handers (allowed ZERO extra-base hits against them in 110 PA last year) so the Twins will want to have him available for key matchups. WIth that being said, I expect he'll get a few save chances in situations where two or three lefty hitters are due up in the ninth. That's the beauty of staying open-minded with this role.
5. Fernando Romero
Down the line, I believe the Twins envision Romero taking over as their long-term closer. They see him as a big, overpowering, imposing presence with the "bulldog" mentality that teams love at the end of games. Kenley Jansen is one name I've heard thrown around as a (very optimistic) comp. And while that might be a bit of a stretch, Romero does fit all of the aforementioned descriptors, and the idea of his stuff playing up in the late innings caused many (including myself) to think it might happen quickly.
Falvey threw some cold water on that hype on Wednesday. "I don't know that we were viewing him as the back-end guy right at the outset," he said. "A lot of people think he had the stuff for it and the ability. I think you grow into those roles."
The CBO mentioned Romero's name in the same breath as Adalberto Mejia, so it sounds like a middle-inning longman role might be more likely out of the gate – IF he makes the team. That's now somewhat in doubt, because while Falvey was holding court with media amidst Wednesday's game, Romero was getting torched for a second straight outing. He's suddenly lost his ability to find the zone. And while it's only spring training, the same thing applies as with May; more so, in fact. Romero doesn't have any track record as a reliever, so the Twins could very well send him down to get a little more acclimated.
6. Addison Reed
When Falvey was asked whether fans should expect anyone other than Miguel Sano and Gabriel Moya (who's battling shoulder tightness) to open on the Injured List, he mentioned that it's "possible there may be one more in that group," and then grinned conspicuously, which seemed to indicate there will definitely be (at least) one more in that group. Some of us inferred he was talking about Reed, because the guy hasn't looked right all spring after not looking right for most of 2018.
If healthy and throwing well, Reed would be at the top of this list, since he's a veteran with an excellent track record and plenty of history closing games (125 career saves). But he's very far from throwing well right now, with 10 earned runs allowed in 5 1/3 innings this spring, and given that an offseason of rest didn't seem to help much, it's tough to imagine what non-surgical solution is going to get him back on track at this point.
7. Ryne Harper
The sleeper. Enjoying a great spring, his odds of making the bullpen are greatly bolstered if Reed and Romero (or Matt Magill, who may also be ailing since he hasn't pitched in a week) do not. Harper's buzz isn't entirely a result of his strong work in eight innings this spring (11 strikeouts, zero walks, zero earned runs); he was also quite impressive between Double-A and Triple-A last year, posting an 86-to-10 K/BB ratio with only two homers allowed in 65 innings.
Granted, he also turns 30 next Tuesday and hasn't yet pitched in the majors, which is why the sleeper label needs to be strongly emphasized. But if he shows well early, reserving him for those less intense save opportunities (multi-run leads, or bottom part of the order due up) would make plenty of sense, and would enable Baldelli to focus on keeping his most powerful arms available to put out fires.
- mikelink45 likes this