When the Twins rose to prominence after the turn of the millennium, dominating the AL Central for nearly a decade, they always relied on a steady bullpen that protected leads.
During that time, Terry Ryan was extremely adept at plucking overlooked assets from other organizations, which allowed him to build effective relief units on the cheap.
There are many examples.
Matt Guerrier was a nondescript Pirates farmhand when the Twins grabbed him off waivers in 2003. Dennys Reyes was released by the Padres midway through '05 before Ryan signed him and watched him blossom into an elite lefty specialist. Joe Nathan was a failed starter and then a setup man with the Giants; with the Twins, he instantly became a top closer in the game.
This was a hallmark of Ryan's first stint at the helm. Whether it was more on him or the scouts he had in place, his regime showed a remarkable ability to capture underutilized arms and get the most out of them. That's a great way to build bullpens, because spending big money on relievers is dangerous given the volatility quotient.
Somewhere along the line, the Twins started failing in this department. Most of the discarded arms from other organizations that they've taken flyers on have been baffling at first and ultimately just frustrating. When you look at predictable wash-outs like Dusty Hughes, Jim Gray, Jim Hoey and Matt Maloney, it's difficult to figure out just what the thought process was. These were all older players with relatively bad track records who showed little in their time with the Twins but still got extended opportunities, sometimes over deserving internal candidates.
The Twins hit big on Jared Burton, who is the resounding success story for this strategy over the past several years, but he was more of an injury gamble than a talent gamble, having previously established himself as a standout setup man in the National League.
When you look at the crop of guys brought in to compete for spots this year, you see more of those talent gambles and it's difficult to have faith given the trends we've seen recently.
There's Tim Wood, a minor-league signee who pitched well in Triple-A last year… as a 29-year-old. Wood's career numbers are mediocre and he's been brutal during limited time in the majors. But – like Hoey and Gray – he does throw hard.
Then you've got Josh Roenicke, a rubber-armed righty claimed off waivers from the Rockies in November. Roenicke made 63 appearances for Colorado last year, logging almost 90 innings and posting a shiny 3.25 ERA, but his strikeout-to-walk ratio was ugly at 54/43. Like Wood, he's a 30-year-old without much meaningful success in his track record.
Also in the fold is Ryan Pressly, the Rule 5 pick out of the Red Sox organization. A former 11th-round draft pick, he failed to gain traction in pro ball as a starter so last year he switched to the bullpen and had a nice run in Double-A last year as a reliever. He then impressed in the Arizona Fall League, which apparently helped draw the Twins to him.
Pressly is only 24 and just transitioned to a new role, so it's easy to see the upside with him compared to Wood and Roenicke. Still, he has proven very little up to this point and his status as a Rule 5 pick adds a wrinkle: the Twins would need to keep him on the roster all season long or return him to Boston, barring a trade.
Will one of these three get a shot? Personally I'd rather see the opportunity go to a player from within the organization, like Anthony Slama or Deolis Guerra or Tyler Robertson. Considering their typical attitude you'd think the Twins would agree.
Nevertheless, I think there's a good chance we see the team gamble on one of the arms brought in from outside. That approach has been a boon for them in the past, but troubling recent decisions make it tougher to believe that the Twins are gambling on the right guys.