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Article: Do The Twins Need A Proven Closer?

trevor hildenberger matt belisle brandon kintzler
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#1 Nick Nelson

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Posted 22 October 2017 - 06:00 PM

Last week, the Minnesota Twins announced that they would not be activating the contract option for Glen Perkins, making him a free agent. Matt Belisle will soon join him.

At that point, the Twins will have a total of three major-league saves on their entire roster (one apiece for Trevor Hildenberger, Tyler Duffey and Gabriel Moya). If experience is at all a weighty factor for this team, then we have a pretty clear idea of what they'll be looking for on the relief market.The 2017 Twins season was, in some ways, a banner example of the closer label's fungibility.

In the past, Minnesota has been guilty of vastly overrating the importance of ninth-inning experience, to its own detriment (*coughMATTCAPPScough*). But this past season, we saw Brandon Kintzler, a veteran with zero career MLB saves prior to overtaking the role midway through 2016, excel as an extremely reliable door-slammer. He converted 28 of 32 saves and made the All-Star team before being traded to Washington.

Good reliever = fine closer.

After Kintzler went to the Nationals, Belisle took over in the ninth. The 37-year-old had never in his career served as a regular closer. During the final two months, he converted nine of 11 saves.

Good reliever = fine closer.

These instances seem to confirm something most of us already knew: there's nothing supernatural about pitching in the ninth inning. And with this in mind, the urgency of adding a reliever with such experience during the offseason is lowered. The Twins have at least one player who could plausibly open the 2018 season as closer, with others in line to get a shot in the near future.

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Trevor Hildenberger: Hildenberger was fantastic as a rookie in 2017, with his stellar mix of strikeouts and grounders proving extremely reliable. He rose to the occasion time and time again in big spots. He got both righties and lefties out. And he has plenty of experience closing in the minors. But he's also 26 with only 42 innings logged in the big leagues. This, too, is problematic: pigeonholing him in the ninth stops him from being available to Paul Molitor in those key mid-game high-leverage spots where Hildenberger was a godsend this year.

I'm not sure you can make a strong case for anyone else internally being ready to take on the closer job now. But as soon as mid-season in 2018, several others could emerge as legit options.


Tyler Duffey: The 2017 season was a frustrating one for Duffey, who flashed overpowering stuff at times and posted solid peripherals (3.72 FIP) but could never get into a prolonged groove in terms of results. It's important to remember, though, that he hadn't previously pitched out of the bullpen since 2013 and was in the Twins rotation mix all the way up until the end of spring camp. If he prepares for 2018 as a reliever, and comes back with an extra tick or two on his fastball to complement his power curve, he's certainly got the makings of a closer. He was a dominant one in college at Rice University.

JT Chargois: Duffey's co-closer at Rice has been on the path to a late-inning role in the majors ever since being drafted, and looks to me like a closer in waiting. He has the pedigree and potency, no doubt. But he lost almost his entire 2017 campaign to an elbow injury, so he'll need to come back and prove himself effective before any kind of high-leverage assignment is on the table.

Ryan Pressly: It was a weird year for Pressly. You look at so many elements of his game and see the profile of someone who could close. His fastball burns in at 96 with a complementary slider at 90. His 3.2 K/BB ratio, 1.16 WHIP, and 50% grounder rate all signaled a quality bullpen weapon. If he could translate his second-half performance (2.62 ERA, .582 opp OPS) over a full season he'd be a perfectly suitable closer. But he's gotten in his own way too often to be counted on. A sustained run of setup excellence in April and May next year could change the narrative.

Gabriel Moya: Acquired for John Ryan Murphy in a late-July trade, Moya had a phenomenal season closing at Double-A, saving 24 games with a 0.77 ERA and 0.77 WHIP, plus a 13.4 K/9 rate. The stuff played in his first taste of the majors, producing a 12.4% swinging strike rate (tied with Pressly for highest in pen) and holding opponents to a .206 average, albeit in a small sample of seven appearances. He performed very well against righties. Moya is definitely a sleeper for the gig but won't be in the mix until midseason.

Tyler Jay: The true sleeper in this discussion. Like Chargois, Jay endured a lost season in 2017, but now he's back in the Arizona Fall League and proving he's healthy. After dealing with shoulder and neck issues again this summer, there were rumblings he'd need thoracic outlet surgery, but has repeatedly tested negative for that condition. Like Chargois, he has the stuff and pedigree; it's just a matter of staying healthy and showing what he can do.

The six players listed above are realistic candidates to be good relievers, and as our earlier arithmetic suggests: Good reliever = fine closer.

But no matter how much you want to downplay it, there is an added element when it comes to pitching in the ninth. There's unique pressure as a hurler faces the reality that small mistakes can turn a win into a loss very quickly.

Any team, especially one with an offense like Minnesota's, can bounce back from a bullpen hiccup in the middle innings. When you're at the very end of the game? Not so much. Kintzler and Belisle converting a combined 86% of their save chances is an underrated factor in Minnesota's 2017 success, and the Twins need to try to replicate that efficacy in late lead protection.

While neither Kintzler nor Belisle had history as a closer, or even a particularly dominant relief pitcher, they did have this arguably essential attribute: lots of experience in the big leagues.

So if the Twins want to hold off on anointing one of the relatively inexperienced relievers as closer, it would make sense to find at least an interim veteran plug. Ideally, they'd do so without paying the premium for closer experience.

Who on this year's market could be the next Kintzler? In our upcoming 2018 Offseason Handbook (preorder now!), we lay out the free agent reliever landscape. Wade Davis, of course, sits at the top of the pack, and is really the only bona fide "Proven Closer" in the group. Others like Seung-hwan Oh and Fernando Rodney have the experience but are somewhat shaky bets.

These are some names that catch my eye as I survey what's going to be out there:

Brandon Kintzler, RHP: If you're looking for a Brandon Kintzler type, you could always sign... Brandon Kintzler. The Twins will have an opportunity to re-sign the 33-year-old right-hander after sending him to Washington for the final two months of the season. He's familiar and well liked in the clubhouse. But they'd also be buying high on a guy coming off his best MLB season – also a season where his 4.9 K/9 rate ranked third-lowest out of 155 qualified relievers.

Steve Cishek, RHP: Cishek has a very similar profile to Hildenberger. He's a right-handed sidearmer who gets lots of ground balls and strikeouts. He has been a very consistent performer over the course of his career, with an ERA+ of 109 or above in each of his seven seasons. Though he served exclusively in a setup role for the Mariners and Rays this year, the 31-year-old has plenty of closing experience with 121 saves and an 83% conversion rate in the big leagues. The distinguished track record will make him a pricey commodity.

Jake McGee, LHP: There are many things to like about McGee. He's a strikeout pitcher with excellent control (four times as many K's as walks in his career). He's a left-hander who shuts down righties. He has experience in the ninth inning (44 saves), as well as in the playoffs (six postseason appearances). He's been durable and fairly reliable. It'd take a sizable multi-year deal to get him, but the 31-year-old could be a great veteran anchor in a young bullpen going forward.

Luke Gregerson, RHP: Over the course of his career – spent with the Padres, A's and Astros – Gregerson has mostly been a fantastic reliever. But he's coming off his worst season, so it's possible he could be had at a relative discount. In the Offseason Handbook, we suggest Gregerson could be viewed as a "rich man's Belisle." He's got tons of experience (623 MLB appearances) and has a rep as a strong clubhouse guy, but he also has been much better all-around, and gets tons of strikeouts with a heavily deployed slider.

Koji Uehara, RHP: It's entirely possible that Uehara decides to hang up the cleats. He turns 43 next April, and had the second half of his 2017 season ruined by knee and back issues. But if he wants to give it one more go, he'd be a welcome addition for the Twins on a one-year deal. When healthy, he's as reliable as they come, and was lights-out in the first half this year. He could hold down the closer role until one of the young guys emerges.

What's your view of the closer situation as we head into the offseason? Are you comfortable with an internal option? Would you aim high for a name like Wade Davis? Or does one of the other free agents listed (or another) make more sense to you?

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#2 ashburyjohn


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Posted 22 October 2017 - 06:18 PM

Good reliever = fine closer.


While I agree that closing out the ninth inning has been somewhat overrated through the years, it's not nothing. Pitchers are not ordinarily thrown into the ninth at random, therefore what you are seeing is a combination of ability and the manager's attempt to choose the right guy for the role. It's a bit of a circular argument.


Moreover, not every attempt works. Ron Davis would be an example of Good Reliever != Fine Closer. (Granted that Davis was a better closer than he's sometimes given credit for. But you don't want your closer weeping in the locker room after another tough loss.)

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#3 kellyvance


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Posted 22 October 2017 - 06:51 PM

Some guys are better at starting an inning fresh  than coming in with men on and a high leverage deal. Stats only go so far. I think there will be some thought given to getting a guy who has ice water in his veins.


Anybody know a good stat approach for guys who shut the door in a two on situation?

I don't think WHIP tells you enough. 

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#4 Blake


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Posted 22 October 2017 - 07:16 PM

I think the Twins need some bullpen flexibility. Kintzler appears to be able to work middle relief and step in to take over the ninth inning in case of extended ineffectiveness by whomever is tagged as the ninth inning guy.


So, I think Kintzler should receive serious consideration.


And, Kintzler now has a valuable commodity: post-season experience. 

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#5 Respy


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Posted 22 October 2017 - 07:35 PM

Unless they sign a closer with several years of closing experience, I hope they sign an experienced reliever or two, and they should be competing for the closer spot next spring with all the internal options you listed. The quality of pitching from Hildenberger, Busenitz, and Moya in their MLB debut seasons was reassuring as we head toward spring training next year. (hopefully not so reassuring that they don't sign any bullpen arms at all)

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#6 Dantes929


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Posted 22 October 2017 - 07:36 PM

Curtiss? Busenitz?Would like to see Kintzler back but not for 3 years and preferably not for 2. Pay him big for one year. He's earned it for us at least.

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#7 Thrylos


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Posted 22 October 2017 - 07:37 PM

Two words:Brandon Morrow.

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#8 gunnarthor


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Posted 22 October 2017 - 07:41 PM

Twins have a long history of giving over the closing job to guys who hadn't done it before - Everyday Eddie, Nathan, Perkins, Kintzler, Belisle. I imagine they will continue that trend.

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#9 Kwak


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Posted 22 October 2017 - 08:13 PM

Managers like to "simplify things" for themselves. Perhaps because they hate making decisions? Most (all?) like a defined 7th, 8th, and 9th inning guy rather than a number of "options" to insert in the game.To that mix, the Twins seem wedded to a defined role for every pitcher--starter, closer, preferred set-up, other set-up guy,LOOGY, long-guy, mop-up guy, extra LHP RP, etc. Hence rather than developing pitchers they are checking boxes. Result--the Twins will sign pitchers to check the boxes this off-season rather than focusing on who might be the best pitcher.

#10 Brandon


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Posted 22 October 2017 - 08:54 PM

I would be surprised if they didn't resign Kintzler next year.He likes it in Minnesota and i could see them working out a 2 year with option or 3 year contract.If they can get Belisle on a 1 year deal again for around 3.5 to 4 million I would do that.But in all seriousness, the Twins do need to sign a second reliever.I do like the idea of signing Wade Davis and using Kintzler as a set up man.That gives 3 different looks from Hildenburger the side armer to Kintzler the ground ball machine to Davis who overpowers hitters.then we just need a good lefty.(Tyler Jay.....)

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#11 Deduno Abides

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Posted 22 October 2017 - 09:55 PM

I believe the Twins have been successful with acquisitions of four proven closers: Reardon, Perranoski, Worthington and Marshall, although Marshall was acquired off the scrap heap and costs were relatively low for the other three (Perranoski with Roseboro and another reliever for washed up Mudcat Grant and Zoilo Versalles was the biggest trade, and probably a steal; Reardon was acquired for bench players and Worthington was purchased for cash). Otherwise, acquisitions have a spotty history (Granger, Davis and Capps being good examples), especially when compared to pitchers getting their first chances with the Twins (Nathan, Aguilera, Perkins, Guardado, Campbell, Corbett, Johnson, Kintzler). The Twins need to improve their bullpen, but it may be an area for economizing. In addition to the names in Nick’s article, Fernando Romero could be worth considering. Also, for Nick’s sake, maybe Ricky Vaughn would be willing to follow Falvey from Cleveland.

Edited by Deduno Abides, 22 October 2017 - 09:56 PM.

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#12 Rosterman


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Posted 22 October 2017 - 10:54 PM

I think the Twins COULD go without and see what they actually do have. I don't see the need to bring back Belisle, or to offer a contract to Kintzler. Try Busenitz or Pressly or Hildenberger. Hope Chargois comes back. Have the loser be the chief setup guy with Rogers.


I would like to see them make roster space by departing with the Boshers and such.

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#13 old nurse

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Posted 23 October 2017 - 05:06 AM


Managers like to "simplify things" for themselves. Perhaps because they hate making decisions? Most (all?) like a defined 7th, 8th, and 9th inning guy rather than a number of "options" to insert in the game.To that mix, the Twins seem wedded to a defined role for every pitcher--starter, closer, preferred set-up, other set-up guy,LOOGY, long-guy, mop-up guy, extra LHP RP, etc. Hence rather than developing pitchers they are checking boxes. Result--the Twins will sign pitchers to check the boxes this off-season rather than focusing on who might be the best pitcher.

A quote from Perkins was something like a lot of players like defined roles so they can get mentally prepared.Just because someone has a defined role at a lower pecking order than closer does not mean that developing them further is not going on, or being attempted. See Dusenitz for the developed, Boshers for the attempted.

#14 big dog

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Posted 23 October 2017 - 05:46 AM

Good Reliever = Fine Closer, except when it doesn't.Ash pointed out the Ron Davis example, and LaTroy Hawkins is another one.He went 14/14 in save opportunities in 2000, came in as the New Big Closer and promptly went 28/37.He got moved to earlier situations and was great, so the Cubs signed him as closer.25 saves in 34 chances.


I guess my advice is that once it's clear it isn't working, better move on rather than hope things change.

#15 Tecmo


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Posted 23 October 2017 - 07:46 AM

Can we bring back Pat Neshek? Has the experience the Twins could use even if he hasn't spent much time as a closer.

#16 Shaitan


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Posted 23 October 2017 - 09:04 AM

Get 5 reliable arms in the bullpen, then worry about who pitches the 9th.


While not everyone is up for the extra pressure of pitching the 9th, a proven closer is almost always an overpay. Few relievers hold down the closer title for more than a few years.

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#17 Shaitan


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Posted 23 October 2017 - 09:05 AM

I like a few of the ideas here: Uehara, Kintzler, and others who are best in other roles but have experience when called upon. That feels like a good stopgap until someone else earns it.


Don't assume a minor leaguer will move straight to that role. Has it ever happened? I keep thinking of Rondon in DET.

#18 JLease


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Posted 23 October 2017 - 09:57 AM

I would like the team to sign a high-leverage reliever. I do not wish for them to pay extra for the "proven closer" tag. as long as "closer" is a term that describes a guy who comes in for the 9th (or occasionally the 10th) with no one on base to start the inning and pitches just 1 inning to rack up the not-terribly-meaningful stat of "saves", I'd rather not pay the extra freight.


It would probably be good for this staff to add a veteran reliever, considering a number of the power arms in the system are coming off injuries or are very young and fairly inexperienced. But it seems wasteful to add $4-6M to a guy's contract just to pitch in such a limited role. I want more fireman relievers who can and will come out with guys on base, with the heart of a team's lineup due up in the 7th, or something like that. That's where I'd rather spend the money. Closers come and go.

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#19 Mike Sixel

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Posted 23 October 2017 - 10:05 AM

I'm a fan of the Dodgers and Yankees re: RP.....go get a lot of really good ones......Now, the Twins don't have that money, but I'd like 2 RPs that the FO believes in to be added to this roster. Now that they have told Molitor they trust him, he can decide how they are used.

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There's always next year, or the next, or maybe by the time I'm Chief's age, I guess....

#20 kellyvance


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Posted 23 October 2017 - 10:11 AM

There are times in a ballgame where the 9th inning takes a back seat. For example, say the other team gets two on and no outs in the 7th with 3-4-5- coming up.  You put your best out there in that situation, don't you? Worry about the 9th later. 


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