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  • Twins 2021 Position Analysis: Relief Pitcher


    Nick Nelson

    There's no two ways about it: on paper, Minnesota's bullpen picture is high on risk and low on assurance. Strategizing around a series of rebound performances and coaching-related glow ups, the message being sent to fans by the front office is essentially: trust us, we got this.

     

    Frankly, they've earned some faith.

    Image courtesy of Jasen Vinlove–USA Today Sports

    Projected Bullpen: Taylor Rogers, Alex Colomé, Tyler Duffey, Hansel Robles, Caleb Thielbar, Jorge Alcalá, Cody Stashak, Lewis Thorpe

    Depth: Shaun Anderson, Ian Hamilton, Brandon Waddell, Ian Gibaut

    Prospects: Jhoan Duran, Edwar Colina, Dakota Chalmers, Josh Winder

     

    THE GOOD

     

    The top of Minnesota's bullpen is well stocked with proven high-caliber arms. Taylor Rogers (3rd), Tyler Duffey (13th) and newcomer Hansel Robles (19th) all rank among the top 20 major-league relief pitchers in fWAR since 2019. Alex Colomé isn't rated quite as highly by that metric (42nd), but is a more conventionally appealing back-end arm: 15th in ERA, fourth in saves (with a 91% conversion rate), and seventh in Win Probability Added.

     

     

    The team's second tier of relievers also offers plenty of prowess. Jorge Alcalá posted a 2.63 ERA and 10.1 K/9 rate as a rookie in 2020, flashing the potential to join the tier above. Cody Stashak has a 3.15 ERA and 42-to-4 K/BB ratio in 40 major-league innings. Caleb Thielbar put up a 2.25 ERA and 9.9 K/9 rate last year in his triumphant resurgence at age 33.

     

    On the fringe of the reliever mix are a number of interesting waiver adds and fixer-upper projects. Names like Shaun Anderson, Brandon Waddell, Ian Gibaut, Derek Law, Luke Farrell, Juan Minaya and Ian Hamilton give Minnesota considerable depth – all pitchers with some big-league experience and intriguing traits pinpointed by the front office.

     

    Given the success we've seen the Twins have with guys like Matt Wisler and Ryne Harper, none of those names can be discounted as potential impact relievers in the coming year. And that's before you get to the prospect pipeline, which packs some serious punch.

     

    The Twins have a deep well of relief pitchers, rich with impressive track records, closing experience, and appealing strengths. They'll have a lot of options to get them through a long season, in which much will likely be asked of the bullpen.

     

    It's easy to have faith in the people running this ship to keep it sailing smoothly.

     

    THE BAD

     

    By parting with Trevor May, Sergio Romo, Tyler Clippard, and Wisler during the offseason, the Twins lost 95 of their 231 bullpen innings from 2020. That's about 40% of the unit's total output, and a much higher share of the high-leverage work.

     

    With the help of those key contributors, Minnesota ranked fourth in the American League in bullpen ERA and second in fWAR. Now the relief corps will be looking to build upon that success through major turnover.

     

    It's hard to make a case on the surface that the Twins' incoming talent comes anywhere close to matching what exited; those four combined last year for a 2.85 ERA while averaging 11.6 K/9. May, in particular, was a flamethrowing strikeout machine whose dominant edge will be tough to replace.

     

     

    Backfilling May's overpowering presence, along with the functional reliability of Clippard and Wisler (who ranked first and second among MN relievers in innings pitched), will be a tall task. While the Twins have a large quantity of talented arms for the task, there are legit question marks surrounding most of them.

     

    Rogers is coming off a tough year, in which hitters seemingly caught on to his previously baffling repertoire. Robles is trying to rebound from an unmitigated disaster that got him non-tendered by the Angels. Colomé was ditched by the White Sox and generated little demand in free agency, despite the gaudy numbers.

     

    It's hard to look at any of these pitchers with the same confidence as Rogers, May and Romo a year ago.

     

    THE BOTTOM LINE

     

    Great bullpens are requisite for transcendent teams, especially in the modern game. Year after year, when you look at MLB's leading teams in bullpen fWAR, you find clubs that made the playoffs and often made deep runs. (Last year, the Dodgers and Rays ranked first and second, respectively.)

     

    The Twins ranked third, for a second consecutive year, and they've achieved all this success by following their own model. They identify impact relievers (often below-the-radar types), develop customized plans, and execute. They've done it time and time again, and for that reason they've earned a good amount of faith.

     

    But leaps of faith are definitely required to see this bullpen maintaining the elite level of performance that's now become the norm. They lost a lot of quality during the offseason, and are gambling heavily on their secret sauce in this 2021 bullpen recipe.

     

    READ OTHER 2021 POSITION ANALYSIS ARTICLES

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    Thanks for your mostly encouraging analysis.  Is there a chance that we could put Derek Law on the 40 man and send Stashak to the minors to begin the season?  I think that Thorpe has thrown well enough this spring to put him in the Bullpen on opening day, even if he gets a fourth option.  Finally, what are you doing with Dobnak?  You listed him first as 'depth' in your starting pitcher analysis, but if Happ is ready to go opening day (or five days later), are you suggesting sending Randy to St. Paul to start the season?  Go Twins!

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    *Frankly, they’ve earned some faith*

     

    Well, these bullpens have been solid in the regular season. Playoffs? Not so much. It was third to blame for last year’s postseason train wreck (behind of course: 1. The Offense and 2. Rocco).

     

    Duffey seems to fold when it matters. Same with Stashak. Can we be sure Robles won’t be awful? Most of our relievers have been putrid this spring. I mostly throw ST stats out the window, but it’s still concerning.

     

    I like the idea of getting a guy like David Robertson. IMO, you can never have too many quality bullpen arms. Robertson would be a great add.

     

    As I’ve also said, Rocco has vastly overused the bullpen the past two years. Too many bullpen games, pulling starters way too early.

     

    A lot needs to go right for our bullpen to be able to carry us through the playoffs.

    1) Rocco needs to learn to not pull his starters when they’re dealing

    2) Robles needs a bounce back year

    3) Basically all of our relievers need to prove that ST stats are useless

    4) Duffey needs to remain a dominant arm

    5) Guys like Alcala, Stashak need to be solid

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    I certainly hope your optimism is accurate.  BPs are hard to predict and difficult to maintain.  I agree with cHawk - don't over use the pen.  BP games, 3 - 4 RP per game just is too much.  If we can only use a starter every 5 days when they are pitching 4 - 5 innings a game then how can we use the RP every 2 - 3 days?  

     

    Averaging 3 RP per game means 486 RP appearances during the season and then they we try to depend on them in the post season.  We need a new analytic for the pen or we need to have a 25 man BP and 15 men on the field and bench - 40 man rosters will be the thing of the future.

    Notice the RP that we discussed on this site in the off season that are now shut down - Kirby Yates (out for year, surgery right elbow), Rosenthal (groin), Hunter Harvey (Orioles - 60 day IL), Zach Britton (Elbow), Jose Leclerc (Texas - elbow), Tyler Clippard ( six weeks Capsule sprain), Will Harris (Nationals, blood clot in throwing arm) -  BP arms blow out, burn out, need rest just like starters.

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    I'm kinda bored with the "Twins lost 40% of their bullpen innings from last year!" concept as a cause for concern. They lost 1 arm they wanted to keep: May. Is anyone really mourning the loss of Romo (probably washed up, finally), Wisler (might be a one-hit wonder), or Clippard (ok, I wouldn't have minded bringing him back...but he's not young)?

     

    Robles is a veteran guy who either figures out how to get back on track...or is pretty easy to move on from. Colome is a high quality pitcher who perpetually induces weak contact and has plenty of experience in high leverage situations. Alcala looks ready to handle more. So it's awfully hard to say the Twins didn't replace what they lost, while having other options if/when some guys have a bounce in variance.

     

    There's a lot of quality arms in the 'pen and the Twins have shown under this regime that they know how to put together a pretty reliable relief corps, and do it without overspending on things like "a proven closer". I'd like to see fewer bullpen games as well; I'm not sure they're really to our advantage and I think we have enough starting pitching to stay out of that zone. I'm hoping it's less likely under a more normal schedule, too, but we'll see what injuries do.

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    Romo not effective, Clippard hurt already this year. May and Wisler will be missed but can't keep everyone when have self imposed salary cap. BPs are always in state of flux, would not be surprised if had 4 different pitchers in BP of the 8 that are on opening day roster by end of year.

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    I'm kinda bored with the "Twins lost 40% of their bullpen innings from last year!" concept as a cause for concern. They lost 1 arm they wanted to keep: May. Is anyone really mourning the loss of Romo (probably washed up, finally), Wisler (might be a one-hit wonder), or Clippard (ok, I wouldn't have minded bringing him back...but he's not young)?

     

    Robles is a veteran guy who either figures out how to get back on track...or is pretty easy to move on from. Colome is a high quality pitcher who perpetually induces weak contact and has plenty of experience in high leverage situations. Alcala looks ready to handle more. So it's awfully hard to say the Twins didn't replace what they lost, while having other options if/when some guys have a bounce in variance.

     

    There's a lot of quality arms in the 'pen and the Twins have shown under this regime that they know how to put together a pretty reliable relief corps, and do it without overspending on things like "a proven closer". I'd like to see fewer bullpen games as well; I'm not sure they're really to our advantage and I think we have enough starting pitching to stay out of that zone. I'm hoping it's less likely under a more normal schedule, too, but we'll see what injuries do.

     

    That is a nice analysis.  May, will be missed but Alcala could step into that role.  Like you I think Romo is pretty easily replaced by Colome.  The hope would be Robles replaces Clippard but I just don't trust Robles yet.  I have seen some pretty hard contact off of his stuff this spring, but hopefully he can come back.

     

    No one is going to replace Wisler's 2 month of production from last year at least not ERA wise probably not even Wisler himself.  So that is problematic in this equation.  Maybe there is a mystery man out there but I don't know who that would be at this time.

     

    It still looks like a strong pen but the best replacement options don't appear to be on the 40 man. The Twins never gave Colina, Chalmers or Ober any chances this spring.  Not sure why but can only assume they aren't ready?  Law, Farrell, and Waddell all have K9's over 15 this spring and have looked pretty dominant granted mostly against the replacement players.  Still all three look like they could be good replacements if anyone falters.  Unfortunately they won't be options early as they would need a 40 man spot and if they are actually good you want it to be a spot they can keep not just for injury.

     

    Maybe Colina and Chalmers are ready and they have seen enough to know that and if that is the case maybe they have two solid option on the 40 man.  I thought for sure they would want to see how Ober's stuff played this spring but I guess I was wrong there as well.

     

    If the Twins get what they need out of Robles and Colome I think this pen should be close to as good as last years that is assuming no regression from Duffy and improvement for Rogers and a healthy season.

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    When there is one wild card to go into the REGULAR season, I would choose the bullpen.

     

    Historically, this is the easiest position to bolster at the trade deadline when you have far more information about which relievers happen to be 'hot' this year.

     

    Also, if Duran doesn't just force his way onto the SP rotation (and we are in contention), I would L-O-V-E LOVE to put him in the bullpen in the back half of the year. He could absolutely be a GAS-MAN in the playoffs who could give us those 2-3 inning performances that Wade etc have given in the past for others.

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    Also, if Duran doesn't just force his way onto the SP rotation (and we are in contention), I would L-O-V-E LOVE to put him in the bullpen in the back half of the year. He could absolutely be a GAS-MAN in the playoffs who could give us those 2-3 inning performances that Wade etc have given in the past for others.

    Houston did that last year with Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier...and they COMPLETELY stifled us. 

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    The joy is we may have a rotation that can push the six inning, if not the 7 inning call. Yes, Odorizzi and his five inning stints was shorted last year.

     

    All those fine arms at AAAA-level at Rochester, but the Twins 40-man is so tight. There is little wiggle room - an outfielder, an infielder, and perhaps two pitching arms that would get snatched by another team if run thru waivers. You don't hope that any planned arms blowup and get released, but aside from 60-daying someone, there isn't a lot of roster moves on the horizon for Twinsland beyond those already on the 40-man. Can Anderson, Colina and Chalmers be the first three to depend on for bullpen relief?

     

    Otherwise the 40-man is full of rotation arms-to-be in Smeltzer, Dobnak, Thorpe, Duran, Balazovic, Ober - any who would not refuse a call to the majors to pitch and inning or two. As can see, not a lot of waiverable names in this list to replace with Hamilton or others. Usually it is nice to have one spot that you play the up-and-down waiver-wire game with. (Trying to remember, do players have to stay down NOW for a certain number of days, or remain on the 40-man)?

     

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    I am actually worried about the bullpen and it’s my only worry. I don’t know if I really have a reason why but I’m worried. I trust the top three guys and maybe Alcala but not the rest. Just a gut feeling that I hope I am wrong about. I didn’t feel this way about the 2019 or 2020 BP so hopefully that’s not a sign. 
     

    Having someone like Thorpe, Dobnak or Law (if he keeps this up) would certainly go a long way of easing my uneasy feeling. 

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    Finally, what are you doing with Dobnak?  You listed him first as 'depth' in your starting pitcher analysis, but if Happ is ready to go opening day (or five days later), are you suggesting sending Randy to St. Paul to start the season?  Go Twins!

    I only included Thorpe as the last reliever here because of the uncertainty around Thorpe's fourth option (which is of course now cleared up). With that sorted, I expect Dobnak to be the long man in the pen.

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    I bet Thorpe and Dobnak will have personal season high innings pitched this year. Anyone not performing well in the BP or SP will give up their innings to them and most likely Duran by end of July. Its going to be an exciting season!!!

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    The joy is we may have a rotation that can push the six inning, if not the 7 inning call. Yes, Odorizzi and his five inning stints was shorted last year.

     

    All those fine arms at AAAA-level at Rochester, but the Twins 40-man is so tight. There is little wiggle room - an outfielder, an infielder, and perhaps two pitching arms that would get snatched by another team if run thru waivers. You don't hope that any planned arms blowup and get released, but aside from 60-daying someone, there isn't a lot of roster moves on the horizon for Twinsland beyond those already on the 40-man. Can Anderson, Colina and Chalmers be the first three to depend on for bullpen relief?

     

    Otherwise the 40-man is full of rotation arms-to-be in Smeltzer, Dobnak, Thorpe, Duran, Balazovic, Ober - any who would not refuse a call to the majors to pitch and inning or two. As can see, not a lot of waiverable names in this list to replace with Hamilton or others. Usually it is nice to have one spot that you play the up-and-down waiver-wire game with. (Trying to remember, do players have to stay down NOW for a certain number of days, or remain on the 40-man)?

    I predict Smeltzer is the first to go if they need room.

     

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    I predict Smeltzer is the first to go if they need room.

     

    If you change predict to bet, I am not betting against you. I would like to see them trade some of this OF depth but that might have to wait until the trade deadline. Who knows ... an opportunity could arise if the right contender has injuries early in the season.

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    I only included Thorpe as the last reliever here because of the uncertainty around Thorpe's fourth option (which is of course now cleared up). With that sorted, I expect Dobnak to be the long man in the pen.

     

    I've been waiting to hear but missed it somewhere. I can assume now, apparently, that Thorpe was indeed awarded the extra option year, yes?

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    If you change predict to bet, I am not betting against you. I would like to see them trade some of this OF depth but that might have to wait until the trade deadline. Who knows ... an opportunity could arise if the right contender has injuries early in the season.

    I like Smeltzer's story, but I keep seeing others pass him - Thorpe now, the prospects next. 

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    While appearing to be speaking out of both sides of my mouth, I am not worried about the pen, and am actually pretty optimistic, while also being concerned.

     

    Why concerned:

     

    Losing May. Let's be honest, he wasn't always Mr. Consistent. There were times he'd walk someone and then allow a big double or HR before striking out the side. But there were plenty of times where he was in a groove and could just be nasty. And once in a while you just need that high velocity, high K to come out of the pen. I really would have liked to spend a little more $ and kept him.

     

    Even if Wisler has a great year, he's not going to duplicate last season. But he was solid and versatile. The Twins have reasons for not keeping him that sort of make sense, but be was inexpensive enough I probably would have kept him.

     

    Forgetting Clippard is out now, we lost a very consistent middle inning arm who has proven himself over and over again.

     

    Why not worried:

     

    OK, RP are volatile in nature, such is their role, except for the best of the best. But there is no age or injury factor or years of mileage on Roger's arm not to expect a rebound.

     

    While I would have liked to keep May, how can we feel bad about Colome? They guy has been very good and very consistent for the past few years. I just bring myself to feel bad we have him.

     

    Robles was a poor signing if you only look at his horrendous 2020. But that's true for a TON of pitchers and players from 2020. His last few previous seasons are very good. The scales tip to the positive no matter how hard you look.

     

    Duffey started slow in ST, looked good, then had a bad game. It's ST! He's working on stuff, getting his work in, and I'm just not worried until I see something that should make me worry.

     

    Frankly, while optimistic, I'm more worried about Stashak and Thielbar continuing to prove they are good. I think they will, particularly the younger Stashak. I'm "worried" how long it may take Alcala to really harness his stuff and show the confidence in himself to replace May. The stuff is there, we've all seen it.

     

    We all have our thoughts, which is great, but IMPO, there are no "easy" removals from the 40 man to add additional BP arms unless someone, unfortunately, ends up on the 60 day list. But despite some top young arms like Colina and Chalmers and the possible, temporary, usage of young SP in the pen, the FO went out and loaded up on interesting depth pieces. Who ever heard of Harper, Wisler or Matt Magill before they came out of nowhere the past few years to provide real help for a time? For that matter, who really expected the re-appearance and re-surgance of Thielbar?

     

    How about Stashak looking like a keeper after being an OK milb starter? While gone now, what about what Littel did when given a shot?

     

    Only time will tell about Farrell, Waddell, Clay and Hamilton, maybe Sparkman, Minya and others. But it's a very interesting collection of arms with ML experience and none. 30yrs old and younger. Decent to excellent FB and sliders and other various other offerings that give St Paul a great introductory season BP while providing depth for the Twins.

     

    I get a kick out of "secret sauce" and it gives me a chuckle. What it really means is a collection of great coaches, given great data, and a collection of arms to work with and develop. But quick now, tell me the last great RP you can think of that was a RP all through milb and dominated at the ML level? Even just limiting it to the Twins, despite some successful role players, the best of the best were former SP.

     

    The nucleus is in place for an excellent back 4. There is the potential for a really good middle ground, with some exciting arms getting close. There are some really interesting depth options who could surprise given need and opportunity. (Again, a potential 40 man crunch).

     

    Secret sauce? No. Just some really smart baseball people with the Twins. Concern? Yes. I want to see the transition take place and work as well as hoped for. Worried? Not at this point.

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    I like Smeltzer's story, but I keep seeing others pass him - Thorpe now, the prospects next. 

     

    I would be trading Smeltzer in the next few days for a lottery ticket or a dozen baseballs because when the final cuts are made I would take Law over Smeltzer. I hate to say it but it's not because of great confidence in Law but I have no confidence Smeltzer is going to contribute. Great story and I wish him well but his spot on the 40 man needs to be realloctaed. 

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