We don't know the answer. If you think you do, you're probably wrong. Sorry to be so blunt, but that's just the nature of relief pitching. The Twins are living proof of its caprice and volatility. Which is why, as Minnesota embarks on a quest to improve its needy bullpen, they face a mighty challenge.Let's review the facts as they stand. The most intriguing pieces currently in the Twins' bullpen are:
- Taylor Rogers, formerly an 11th-round pick turned nondescript minor-league starter, who transitioned into relief duty immediately in the majors, and blossomed into a top-tier setup man over three short years.
- Ryne Harper, a former 37th-round pick who toiled in the minors for nine years before making the Twins out of camp this spring on a minor-league deal. He debuted as a 30-year-old rookie.
- Blake Parker, the team's biggest offseason bullpen splash. His smallish free agent contract as a castoff from the Angels was whittled down further after his physical. I hesitate to call him "intriguing" at this point, given his trendline, but overall he's gotten it done.
- Tyler Duffey, Trevor May, Zack Littell: All former middling prospects as starters, finding new gears as MLB relievers. Before you write off any of the three as flashes in the pan, or overachieving mediocrities, go back and read Rogers' blurb again. As I watch Duffey, May and Littell develop into lethal flamethrowers, I do wonder how differently their careers might have gone if the organization had committed to their role changes as quickly and decisively as with Rogers.
Meanwhile, here are the pitchers conspicuously NOT contributing to the current campaign:
- Addison Reed, who signed the largest free agent reliever deal in franchise history 18 months ago. The Twins ate a good portion of it when they released him last month.
- Trevor Hildenberger, who was the team's most reliable bullpen arm for about a year before falling apart at the seams midway through 2018. He's currently on the injured list at Triple-A.
- Fernando Romero, the former top pitching prospect who's flamed out in multiple stints with the Twins this year, and hasn't looked a whole lot better in Triple-A.
The malfunctions with all three of these players are largely driving the urgency to make improvements. But each of them, and Reed especially, epitomizes the reason that's a much taller order than many clamoring fans would like to believe. Anyone expressing certainty that Craig Kimbrel would've been a decisive upgrade is kidding themselves.
Reed, like Kimbrel, generated less free agent demand than expected, given his backend pedigree, but he still had all the makings of a bullpen stud. He was younger and less weathered than Kimbrel. And in the early portion of his contract, Reed looked the part. But his drop-off was both rapid and ruthless.
And the thing is, he's not alone. Reed is a somewhat extreme version of an all-too-common outcome. I just checked in on the top RP options listed in the latest Offseason Handbook, and there are vastly more busts than even moderately decent values. Kimbrel still hasn't pitched in the majors. David Robertson's thrown only seven innings due to injury issues. Andrew Miller's been mediocre. Kelvin Herrera, Jeurys Familia and Joe Kelly have been terrible. Cody Allen was so bad he's already been cut by the Angels, and signed by Minnesota to a minors deal.
Allen now feels like a long shot to make any kind of meaningful impact; but, as you go through the names above, doesn't that feel true for almost anyone? Granted, some of these guys had their red flags, but all had strong track records, and signed for many millions of dollars. To a man, they've all floundered.
Meanwhile, the Twins are finding their most credible help in a 30-year-old journeyman and a bunch of failed minor-league starters. And most of these guys are hitting their own skids at times.
What all of this suggests to me:
First, it's really hard to be a relief pitcher in the major leagues right now, with stacked lineups of aggressive upper-cut swingers just waiting to feast on premium heat. This is borne out by the numbers: MLB relievers, as a whole, have a 4.50 ERA this year, up from 4.08 last year and higher than their starting counterparts (!).
Second, and not unrelatedly: it's going to be very difficult for the Twins to solve this problem. Difficult, and stressful. They aren't short on resources by any means, but that's not the problem. Those onerous contracts plaguing other teams who splurged on the relief market last winter are one thing; when you start giving up valuable prospects, stakes are raised, especially for a team in Minnesota's position.
There are a lot of seemingly tantalizing relief options out there on the trade market. We've been covering them in a series of profiles here on the site, so this might be a good time to get caught up:
- Liam Hendriks, RHP, Athletics
- Ty Buttrey, RHP, Angels
- Ken Giles, RHP, Blue Jays
- Sam Dyson, RHP, Giants
- Brad Hand, LHP, Indians
- Oliver Perez, LHP Cleveland
- Robert Stephenson, RHP, Reds
- John Gant, RHP, Cardinals
- Alex Colome, RHP, White Sox
- Seth Lugo, RHP, Mets
- Greg Holland, RHP, Diamondbacks
- Sean Doolittle, LHP, Nationals
- Kirby Yates, RHP, Padres
But of course, it doesn't matter if we're right – only the guys leading the front office. What's most important is that they buy into what's to come, rather than what's already gone.
If only it were that easy.
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