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In Win-Now Mode, Twins Keeping Graterol in Bullpen


Nick Nelson
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The Minnesota Twins, having crystallized their intentions to make hay of a momentous opportunity with the landmark signing of Josh Donaldson last week, are in an interesting position regarding their top pitching prospect.

 

There's a case to be made for delaying Brusdar Graterol's arrival by developing him as a starter. It doesn't appear to be the route this team will take.Graterol's role for 2020 has been an open question all offseason. He had worked almost exclusively as a starter in the minors up until last summer, when he returned from a two-month injury hiatus as a shutdown reliever. His dominant debut out of the bullpen included a convincing September stint with the Twins, and a shutdown inning against New York in the ALDS.

 

Obviously, he would offer more ostensible impact out of the rotation, which is why many observers would like to see him further developed in that role. Still only 21 years old, Graterol could easily start the 2020 campaign back at Triple-A, reacclimating to the routine and building up stamina.

 

But, based on pitching coach Wes Johnson's comments at a Winter Caravan stop in St. Cloud this week (via MLB.com writer Do-Hyoung Park), it doesn't look like that's in the cards:

 

The key phrase in Park's tweets: "So the balance is finding MLB innings without pushing it." Clearly the Twins want to leverage their high-powered weapon in short order – and why wouldn't they? He was virtually lights-out as a 20-year-old rookie in a pennant race. Graterol has the very real potential to rank among the American League's most valuable relievers right now.

 

In theory, he has also has the ultimate potential to be an ace starter, and he has looked that part at times in the minors. Chasing this upside would be a hazardous gamble for the Twins, however.

 

Firstly, Graterol has never thrown more than 102 innings in a season. Bringing him along as a starter would require stringent workload management throughout the summer, and even then, you have to wonder how comfortable the (hopefully contending!) Twins would be pushing him into uncharted late-season territory under duress.

 

Secondly, the process of building Graterol up toward a 100 pitches/game, 200 IP/year regimen requires using up a whole lot of bullets, even it proves to be a futile exercise. History tells us that guys who throw this hard at age 20 don't do it for long. In terms of raw juice, Graterol's arm is at its peak right now. There's a "diminishing returns" dynamic at play.

 

Combine these natural effects of physiology with the necessary max-effort trade-offs that come a starter's workload, and it's entirely possible that the Graterol we eventually see as a starter is a far cry from the flame-throwing force we witnessed in 2019.

 

And that's all assuming he stays healthy. Because the final point is that – even if you downplay the progressive attrition caused by throwing meaningless innings in the minors – injuries can strike at any time. Graterol is living proof. He signed with the Twins at age 16, threw 11 innings, and then didn't pitch in a game again for two full years due to injury. He seemed to be in the clear after a healthy 2018, but landed on the shelf again last May with a shoulder impingement, which sidelined him for two months.

 

Given his undeniable durability concerns, it behooves both team and player to opt now toward short stints in the majors; Graterol can accrue MLB service time at age 21, while the Twins can fully unleash him at the height of his physical prowess, amidst a full-fledged championship push.

 

If you find yourself feeling a little disappointed by this development, which all but subtracts Graterol as a hypothetical wild-card in Minnesota's currently ace-less 2020 rotation, let me leave you with three things:

 

1: Graterol can be a massive difference-maker out of the bullpen right away, lessening the burden on the rotation in turn.

 

 

2: Graterol wasn't going to be a factor for the Twins as a starter this year. Even if he avoids injuries entirely, there was no scenario in which he was going to handle a starter's workload all season long, and still be available for October.

 

3: A relief billing now does not rule out the possibility that Graterol can transition back into a starting role in the future. It's important to remember how young he is. At the same age, Johan Santana was still destined for three more seasons vacillating between rotation and bullpen, before blossoming as a Cy Young starter. Another example I like to cite: Adam Wainwright spent his first year in the majors as a full-time setup man, then threw 200 innings as a starter the following year.

 

For a multitude of reasons, going with Graterol in the bullpen is the right decision at this moment for the Twins. If this were three or four years ago, and the franchise was still gazing toward a future window of contention, I might argue differently. But as I wrote earlier this week, the game has changed.

 

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In my opinion he is just as likely to blow out his arm throwing 100mph out of the pen.   They can tell themselves they are protecting his arm and it might be the absolute best thing they can do or the absolute worst and anywhere in between.     Is throwing 180 innings in 30 starts with a fastball at 96 better or worse than throwing 60 times out of the pen at 101?   No way of knowing.    Not surprising that throwing over 100 as a starter 5 innings at a time has caused some strain but no real science to back up that either.    I was hoping he would start right out of the gate but he should be a significant asset out of the pen.     Now we are talking Berrios, Odo, Bailey, Dobnak and Thorpe/Shmeltzer?

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Great move to maximize what we can get out of him this year. Also demonstrates they are in win-now mode and not worrying about service time considerations with a guy they know can help them win right now. Would not mind seeing him get some “opener” time early in the year while we wait on Pineda to return so he can get 2-3 inning stints on a regular schedule, and then later in the year a late inning bullpen role.

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2: Graterol wasn't going to be a factor for the Twins as a starter this year. Even if he avoids injuries entirely, there was no scenario in which he was going to handle a starter's workload all season long, and still be available for October.

 

I reject this premise(above.)   Graterol probably threw 200 innings when he was 15 years old.  "Building him up" to be a starter for a couple of years doesn't fit with biology which probably says that he is now at (or close) to his physical peak.   Building up Odorizzi's arm in spring training to be a starter could easily be done for Graterol as well.   Now if the staff didn't think he could be a quality starter (like Homer Bailey,) then that is an arguement I am comfortable with leaving up to Wes Johnson.

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Johan Santana is my all time favorite Twins pitcher (Camilo Pasqual is my sentimental 2nd) I saw greatness in Santana when he 1st start pitching & couldn`t figure out why they didn`t utilize him more as a starter from the beginning (now I better understand). I have the same hope in Graterol as an ace starter. He has the poise to pitch in the ML. He just needs to develop his secondary pitches to offset his FB. Yes, I`d like to see the Twins go all out this year too but the BP isn`t a problem spot where we have to have Gaterol, our problem spot is SP. So there we need to focus on. I think we are better served down the road to have Gaterol start in the minors to work primarily on his secondary pitches & rotate him up in the majors as needed as an opener. Absolutely we need to limit his pitches, we can still do that as him as a starter & slowly increase his playing time. By the time PS comes around, hopefully he`ll  have all his pitches working to start  in the play-offs if not he can be used in the pen then. Next year we`ll have an more establish starter. 

All that said I trust Wes Johnson. That`s why they pay him the big bucks & I`m only an armchair manager

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I've been impressed with the Twins approach to communicating expectations for players. However anyone feels about the choice, at least Graterol can prepare for camp understanding their plans for him. 

 

I hope they avoid using Graterol as a "fireman" to start the season. IMO, irregular work might be as hard on his arm as starting. I'd rather see him pitch multiple innings in tandem with the 5th starter.

 

It would be fun to see Graterol in combination with Smeltzer to start the season.   Smeltzer throwing low velocity, high spin fastballs mixed with three offspeed pitches. Graterol following with 99 MPH sinkers and ferocious sliders from the right side. I can't think of a more radical difference in styles. Either one could start and the change would be jarring to hitters.

 

 

 

 

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10 innings outside of the clunker falls under SSS for sure. I'm not saying the results were bad, but we have to recognize that right now it's more results inconclusive rather then pinning hopes that he can rival Rodgers for the best reliever...

 

Now that said, he needs to get 100-120 innings this season. He won't do that in the pen... so I guess the question I have is why he cannot get some starts in April/May given that both Pineda and Hill won't be available? It helps log the innings. It keeps him the majors, and he can switch back to the pen when one comes back. 

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IMO, after watching him last year I think didn't his pitches were ready for a major league starting role, but they played well in short outings.

So to me the options are sending him back to AA as a starter to work on his pitches and who knows how long that will take. Or put him in the major league bullpen and have Johnson work with him on improving his pitches. To me the second option is the best way waste an arm that throws 100 MPH in the minors, now the bad thing with doing is this is that clock will start to FA.

 

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It seems to me they tried to be careful with him last year in AA and he still ended up hurt.  IMO they don't believe his arm can hold up to a starters load without injury.  Maybe it won't hold up to pen work either but probably best to get his arm through a full season first and then go from there.  If he can help the MLB club out of the pen while doing that then all the better.

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If Graterol is viewed as a starter by the front office he should start this year. Either beginning in AAA or if he earns a spot in the majors. He probably does need have his innings load monitored. Start with 2-3 inning outings so more of an opener or piggyback guy. If all goes well he’s up to 4-5 innings per outing by the all star break and will be able to throw 100 pitches per outing for Sept and postseason. My plan would be to try and get him to 150 innings. If injuries keep Graterol from reaching that limit they have the depth to make up for it. And they can go into next season with more knowledge of what he can handle. I just think it’s worth the risk to keep trying him as a starter knowing he has more “ace” potential than anybody currently on this 40 man roster. To pigeon hole him as a reliever at age 21 seems strange with such an obvious need in the rotation. Especially for postseason.

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In my opinion he is just as likely to blow out his arm throwing 100mph out of the pen.   They can tell themselves they are protecting his arm and it might be the absolute best thing they can do or the absolute worst and anywhere in between.     Is throwing 180 innings in 30 starts with a fastball at 96 better or worse than throwing 60 times out of the pen at 101?   No way of knowing.    Not surprising that throwing over 100 as a starter 5 innings at a time has caused some strain but no real science to back up that either.    I was hoping he would start right out of the gate but he should be a significant asset out of the pen.     Now we are talking Berrios, Odo, Bailey, Dobnak and Thorpe/Shmeltzer?

This isn't really an "in my opinion" question - given his lack of extended work, he's far more likely to to have arm issues starting & racking up innings over the course of the year.

 

There have been actual studies to this end, and luckily the Twins don't need to rely on your apparently un-researched opinion. Two examples of recent studies:

 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6350667/

 

and

 

http://harvardsportsanalysis.org/2016/01/predicting-pitcher-injuries/

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He's clearly ready to be a difference maker now but needs to continue to build up innings. Wes Johnson said he's bullpen bound but that doesn't necessarily mean he'll be used as a traditional single inning reliever. There are lots of ways they could deploy him as a multi-inning opener or reliever on somewhat of a rotation that could be mutually beneficial to the team and to his development. Maybe the Twins just feel that the best place for an arm this valuable but to date fragile is with the big league club where he'll get the best coaching, training, mentorship and nutrition the Twins can provide.

 

As a fan I can't wait to watch him make hitters look foolish all summer instead of just reading about it in the minor league forum game recaps. 

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I was advocating for him as an early season starter transitioning to the pen when the rotation fills up. Which would limit his innings. They must think either he doesn't have the pitches for that yet or can't handle the load yet or some combination of both. I'm on board with this move for 2 reasons. I love the new FO not wasting his bullets in the minors and this move can be temporary i.e. Santana. This is aggressive and decisive management!

Edit: Make that 3 reasons, I like him up with the major league staff and players.

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One result of committing Graterol to the bullpen this year would be the increased chance that Romero will not be in the Twins' bullpen, making him by far the most likely to be included in any trade the Twins make. Young, mid-nineties velocity, some experience and on his last option. I would think many clubs would want to take a flyer on him.

 

As for Graterol, the velocity is nice, but he doesn't get as many swings and misses as other guys who don't throw it as hard (SSS, I know). I like that the team is playing to win, but I wonder if eliminating a possible ace for this decade is worth having his stuff in the bullpen this year.

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I find myself going back and forth between "like" and "hate" this when it comes to a plan for Graterol in 2020.

 

I would rather the plan be use him as a starter until you have to limit his innings out of the bullpen, but that likely means he's not on the opening day roster, so there's the tradeoff.

 

But I would also consider that I don't really see him as being needed out of the gate in the bullpen, or that this scenario is likely to happen. I certainly don't take 9.2 innings in September/October as gospel for what he could or could not do out of the bullpen.

 

Thus, if he's not going to crack the opening day roster, he should be starting to begin the year.

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Creativity in how to use Graterol to get meaningful outs (I guess they're all meaningful but at different levels) is needed in this situation.  I'm definitely not in the camp of "just throw him out there until is arm falls off", but I don't think a hard innings limit should be penned in right out of the gate.

 

Steal a page from Dave Roberts or Craig Counsell and give him different situations to use his talents.  Thinking out loud, I can envision a Hader/Maeda combination weapon of some kind.

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