Relievers can be one of the trickiest groups for teams to evaluate. One relief pitcher can look great, and another can look terrible with such small sample sizes attached to their performances. Minnesota saw multiple relievers leave last winter and not all of them have found success with their new teams. However, one pitcher might be proving the Twins gave up on him a little too early.
Zack Littell joined the Twins in 2017 as part of an interesting trade deadline. Minnesota acquired Jaime Garcia from the Braves and then after making one start, he was dealt to the Yankees. Littell was part of the return from New York, and he was amid a tremendous minor league campaign where he posted a 2.12 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP.
Littell’s time in Minnesota was filled with ups and downs. After finding some success in the upper minors, Littell seemed to be part of Minnesota’s future bullpen with the numbers he compiled in 2019. As a 23-year-old, he posted a 2.68 ERA with a 1.16 WHIP with a 32 to 9 strikeout to walk ratio. He was striking out less than a batter per inning, but his ERA+ and FIP pointed to him being an above average relief option. He was also one of the team’s most reliable relief arms down the stretch.
Things couldn’t have gone much worse for Littell in 2020. He made six appearances with the Twins and allowed five home runs. He made multiple trips to the injured list as his elbow was bothering him. This probably made it easier for Minnesota to designate him for assignment and remove him from the 40-man roster without another team making a claim. This still left the team in a little bit of a dilemma as he would need to be added back to the 40-man this winter or become a minor league free agent. He became a free agent and signed a minor league deal with the San Francisco Giants.
In a division with the Dodgers and Padres, the Giants weren’t supposed to be in contention, but they entered play on Monday with a one game division lead. Littell has been part of the surprise club as he has posted a 1.47 ERA with a 0.98 WHIP across 20 appearances. The team even turned to him to make a start for the club. His strikeouts per nine are higher than his career average and he’s doing a better job of keeping the ball in the park. Last year’s elbow issues seem to be behind him.
There are likely multiple reasons that Minnesota let Littell go whether they were worried about his elbow or low strikeout numbers. However, his success is tough to swallow when the Twins have struggled to get consistent production out of the bullpen in 2021.
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