Twins 2019 Position Analysis: Relief Pitcher
Image courtesy of Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY SportsProjected Bullpen: Taylor Rogers, Trevor May, Fernando Romero, Blake Parker, Addison Reed, Adalberto Mejia, Matt Magill
Depth: Trevor Hildenberger, Tyler Duffey, Gabriel Moya, Andrew Vazquez, Ryne Harper, Tim Collins, Mike Morin
Prospects: Jorge Alcala, Jake Reed, Tyler Jay, Jordan Balazovic, Tyler Wells
The Twins have no closer.
You might be confused reading that sentence under "THE GOOD" banner but to me, it really is a positive. We have no idea what to expect from Rocco Baldelli as a bullpen handler, but at least the rookie manager doesn't seem eager to constrict himself to rigidly defined roles. Despite its analytical awakening, Major League Baseball has lagged behind in terms of relief usage sophistication, plagued by the "save" and its overinflated prestige.
If he simply makes a habit of using his best available arms in the highest-leverage spots – a formula that hasn't always taken hold in a game ruled by conventional hierarchies – Baldelli could find himself with an edge over opposing teams that reserve their best reliever until it's too late. And on any given day, the skipper might just find himself with multiple high-caliber arms available.
Rogers, May and Romero are poised to form a fearsome trio in the late innings. Granted, only one of the three (Rogers) has already established himself as a top-tier reliever, but both May and Romero show all the ingredients.
May flashed overpowering stuff as a full-time reliever in 2016, though he was hampered by back issues and inconsistent results. After losing his following season to Tommy John surgery, he came back last summer like a man on fire, piling up whiffs with mid-90s heat and powered-up secondaries. In 25 1/3 innings, he held opponents to a .221 average with a 36-to-5 K/BB ratio.
Romero hasn't officially tried his hand as a reliever, but he has unsurprisingly taken well to the assignment this spring. His ferocious stuff seemed to play down as a starter, so the Twins are wagering it'll yield stronger results in short stints – a reasonable bet. In nine innings this spring, he has held opponents to a .188 average and .219 slugging percentage with heavy sinkers in the high-90s. He could be a hell of a weapon as a multi-inning fireman type, which appears to be the role Baldelli envisions for him.
Behind the Big Three, the Twins have a couple of veterans with strong track records in Parker and Addison Reed, though each is coming off a down year. Mejia has been a competent major-league starter and could be a nice asset as a long man out of the pen if his repertoire levels up at all. Magill averaged a strikeout per inning as an out-of-nowhere rookie last year, and has been touching 96 on the radar gun this spring.
Hildenberger is the big-time sleeper here. When he's on his game (as he was for his first 70 or so appearances as a Twin), he brings an ultra-reliable mix of grounders, strikeouts and control, but he was not on his game in the second half last year. That might leave him on the outside looking in when the spring training dust settles next week, but don't count him out as an important contributor to this bullpen.
It's also possible a non-roster sleeper in camp could find his way into the picture, either at the outset or a short way into the campaign. Harper is the current favorite on that front. Collins, Morin and Jake Reed have also caught some eyes.
The Twins lost a critical piece of their 2019 bullpen when they traded Ryan Pressly to Houston last July, and they haven't done nearly enough to fill that enormous void.
There is one reliever in this group that you can truly feel confident in based on his recent history: Rogers. That's it. Romero and May are full of potential but neither has really proven himself. Addison Reed was a mess last year and has been this spring too. Parker's performance in 2018 was uninspiring enough – despite the 3.26 ERA – that the Angels non-tendered him, and he went unsigned for six weeks until Minnesota inked him to a meager $1.8 million deal. Mejia and Magill? Both are on the fringe of major-league viability.
What's worse: the depth isn't really there to plug holes as they emerge.
The best hope for an impact prospect infusion is probably Alcala, who came over from Houston in the Pressly trade. The 23-year-old possesses a high-90s fastball and a slider with the makings of an out pitch, but he was underwhelming and injured after joining Minnesota's Double-A affiliate so it's tough to view him as a short-term difference-maker. The relegation of Jay, the club's top draft pick in 2015, to afterthought status looms very large here.
This bullpen seems far more likely to turn into an unmitigated disaster than a competitive advantage. All it takes is an injury to one of those key late-inning linchpins, or a couple of critical guys failing to assert themselves, and Baldelli will quickly find himself short on options he can trust.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Last summer the Twins traded away one of the 10 most valuable relievers in baseball (according to fWAR), whom they still controlled in 2019. They dealt him to Houston, one of the teams they will ostensibly be competing against for the AL pennant this year. The Astros just signed him to a two-year, $17.5 million extension, indicating he'll be a building block for their elite bullpen going forward. And most damningly, the Twins failed to replace Pressly during the offseason with any kind of proven, high-impact asset to bolster the back-end of their pen. Their lone addition was a 33-year-old non-tender whose guaranteed salary was docked by health concerns.
Oh, and the guy who will be pulling the strings has zero experience managing a bullpen. Same for both of his rookie pitching coaches.
By nature, bullpens are highly volatile and unpredictable. There was nothing Minnesota's front office could've realistically done to establish this unit as any kind of "sure thing," but their efforts to shore it up seem woefully deficient. They are pinning their hopes on a whole lot of gambles playing out right, and Twins fans are too jaded from past trauma to feel much confidence in that outcome.
What's most vexing about this situation is that the Twins have otherwise developed a pretty solid roster with legitimate potential. There ain't much more frustrating than building leads and watching them slip away in the latter parts of games. Unfortunately, this club seems destined to make that a routine occurrence if their planned power trio doesn't gel in the late innings, or the various questionable parts surrounding them fall the wrong way.
The good news, I suppose, is that it's easier to upgrade relief pitching in-season than just about any other position.
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