Report From The Fort: Sorting Out The Lone Position Battle
Image courtesy of Jeffrey Becker, USA Today (Tyler Duffey)The first four slots in the Minnesota rotation are set with Jose Berrios, Lance Lynn, Jake Odorizzi and Kyle Gibson. The fifth spot is almost certain to go to Phil Hughes, who figures to function as sort of a starter/long reliever hybrid in the early going.
With five off days in the first three weeks, the team's schedule is such that they can get through April while only needing a fifth starter two or three times. And by the time they'll require one on a more regular basis, Ervin Santana should be close to returning if not back already.
That means barring injury, someone from the Opening Day staff will be bumped by Santana in late April or early May. So the competition doesn't end once camp breaks. Whoever wins that final bullpen job will need to prove his worth throughout the early part of the schedule.
As things stand, there are four relievers remaining in camp to vie for that last relief gig. One could argue it's really a two-man race. Let's first take a look at the two longshots:
Alan Busenitz, RHP
Busenitz has a couple of very attractive numbers working in his favor: 1.99, and 95.7. The first is his ERA in 28 appearances during a sparking 2017 debut with the Twins. The second is his average fastball speed during that stint. Of the 462 pitchers to throw at least 30 innings in the majors, only 54 threw harder, placing Busenitz near the 10th percentile.
But here's the problem with the 1.99 ERA: it came attached to a 4.20 FIP and 4.80 xFIP, owing to the fact that Busenitz benefitted from a .212 BABIP and 86.6% strand rate. Minnesota's analytically minded front office surely recognizes the suspect sustainability of those numbers.
And as for the 95-MPH heater, it was really the sole pitch he used effectively. His other offering is a curveball and it was nothing special, helping explain why the righty produced just 6.5 K/9 and a 7.2% swinging strike rate, which nestled between relative soft-tossers Hector Santiago (7.4%) and Phil Hughes (7.2%).
As a fly ball pitcher who allows quite a bit of contact, Busenitz walks a dangerous line. Only one qualified MLB reliever finished with a FB rate above 45% and a K-rate below 20% last year – Seattle's Nick Vincent, and he succeeded with a very different formula, drawing weak contact with a high-80s cutter.
So there's reason for concern around Busenitz's long-term outlook unless he can crank up the K's or cut down the flies. But in the short-term, the biggest thing working against him is that – since he has multiple options remaining – the Twins have nothing to lose by sending him down to Rochester to work on those things.
Gabriel Moya, LHP
On the other end of the whiff spectrum lies Moya, whose 12.4% swinging strike rate during a very brief stint in Minnesota last year tied Pressly for best on the staff. Moya has also had an extremely impressive spring up to this point, allowing just one run (a solo homer in his first appearance) on three hits in six innings of work.
Something that could work in Moya's favor is the Twins going with five right-handers in the rotation. Theoretically this might increase Paul Molitor's desire to have a third southpaw in the bullpen, but Moya – who relies heavily on an excellent changeup – has never had big platoon splits, and in fact last year he was much better against righties.
Like Busenitz, he has options remaining so there's no harm in sending him to Triple-A to start the season. But I am confident Moya will be a solid weapon at some point.
And now, the two leading contenders:
Tyler Duffey, RHP
On Wednesday, Duffey made his first start in almost exactly one calendar year, allowing two runs (one earned) over three innings with two strikeouts and two walks. Molitor indicated afterward that the team plans to have him make another start in five days, on March 19th.
The right-hander has basically no shot at a rotation spot, so why is he getting starts? The answer is easy enough to see.
"I've been told I've been just lengthened out," Duffey said. "That's just to make sure I'm ready for that long role and maybe if something happens like a rainout or whatever and they need a guy."
In this capacity, Duffey looks like a very obvious fit. One thing lacking in the current bullpen makeup is a pitcher with such a profile. In 2017 he got six or more outs in 15 of his 56 relief appearances. He even completed three full innings a couple of times.
"We know he can be that guy, he did it last year quite a bit," Molitor said of Duffey's capability to fill the long relief role.
The manager didn't have an especially positive review of the 27-year-old's performance against a tough Boston lineup – "Overall you have to say that he battled really well, I don't think he had his best stuff" – and Duffey has generally been unspectacular on the mound this spring, but that seems almost immaterial. They need him.
Or do they?
Tyler Kinley, RHP
Ah, the Rule 5 pick. Always fun for a skipper to deal with in spring camp. Kinley has certainly caught some eyeballs with his big velocity, including a heater that reaches 99 and a slider that can touch 90. His Grapefruit numbers have been about what you'd expect based on his track record; six innings, six strikeouts, five walks.
It's becoming a little easier to understand what the Twins saw in Kinley – and Molitor had high praise for the 27-year-old earlier this month – but how does he fit? Another one-inning guy in a unit full of them? Isn't his signature short-burst velo a bit redundant with Pressly? Can a team with hopes of contending really dedicate a roster spot to such an unproven commodity?
One would surmise no. But of course, if the Twins don't carry Kinley on the active roster or trade for him, they'll have to ship him back to Miami. That wouldn't be the biggest deal but Molitor is well aware of what Minnesota's front office has invested in the righty.
Not financially, mind you, but with Kinley occupying a 40-man slot they've had to let some other promising players slip away – most recently J.T. Chargois, who is having a strong spring with the Dodgers. As such, the Twins owe it to themselves to get a good long look at Kinley. Could that mean bringing him north, even if it means sending Duffey down (he does have an option) and forgoing a traditional mop-up option?
It's not unthinkable. Hughes can ostensibly handle that long relief role between his sporadic starts in April. I don't think Molitor's going to go with a guy he flat-out can't rely on in a key spot, but if Kinley is able to convince the manager he's worth counting on? Like I said, not unthinkable.
But also not at all likely. If the team is sold on Kinley I suspect they'll try to work out a trade with Miami that would allow them to send him to Triple-A. Duffey is in the driver's seat until further notice. His flexible arm is just too useful to be sent away.
Sorry to put the kibosh on whatever minimal suspense existed around the lone "position battle" in camp. But if you're into such things, the good news is that Duffey will essentially be locked in a battle with Hughes to maintain that long relief role upon Santana's return.
- Cory Engelhardt, nclahammer and Dave The Dastardly like this