Early in the offseason, Terry Ryan spoke frequently about the need to improve the bullpen, a bullpen that really struggled, especially in the second half of last season. As we got to the Winter Meetings, the focus became left-handed pitching. Yet, as the offseason continued on and now spring training has started, the Twins went without signing or trading for any MLB relief pitchers.
Some can argue that the Twins accomplished some measure of addition by subtraction. They chose not to bring back free agents Blaine Boyer, Brian Duensing or Neal Cotts (each signed a minor league contract elsewhere shortly before spring training).
Glen Perkins. Kevin Jepsen. Casey Fien. Probably Trevor May, as we assume he’ll be in the bullpen and not the rotation. We know it’s very possible that Ricky Nolasco or Tommy Milone, whichever is not the team’s fifth starter, will be in the bullpen. That leaves just two spots that are really open (assuming no trades, or any injuries - which of course can’t be assumed).
Michael Tonkin is out of options. He will get a very long look. Many will say that he is a favorite for one more spot. I am one of them, though I do not think his roster spot is a given.
So, let’s get back to the question at the top. Do we want veterans or young players with upside?
39-year-old Matt Thornton has been a high-quality left-handed reliever for a decade. He was truly great from 2008 to 2010 when he threw really hard (mid-to-upper 90s) for the White Sox. While his velocity and strikeout rates have dropped the last five years, he still had an ERA under 2.00 last year. Will that continue as he approaches 40? Maybe.
Neal Cotts, Brian Duensing, Manny Parra and others fall a category or two lower than Thornton. They’re a little younger, and they have had some experience and a bit of success over the last five to six years. They are veterans, but there isn’t a lot of potential. They are sixth and seventh inning type of guys.
Reading the forums of Twins Daily the last couple of years, there are many who think that those lower-leverage situations are ideal for a young pitcher with upside. Remember, between Perkins, Jepsen, May and Fien, the 8th and 9th innings are pretty well covered. If things are going well, that group could cover the 7th inning at times as well. Ricky Nolasco (if he’s in the bullpen) is the likely long reliever.
Let’s not call Michael Tonkin a given yet. So, do we want those veterans for the sixth and seventh inning, or do we want youngsters in those two remaining spots in the bullpen?
SEEN THEM, STILL YOUNG (RH RP)
Ryan Pressly was doing well when he was injured last year. He deserves another opportunity and will pitch well. JR Graham was up due to the Rule 5 rules last year, and he has a lot of talent. Most likely, he’ll do what Pressly has done and spend plenty of time in AAA in 2016. Alex Meyer clearly has a world of talent and will likely get an opportunity at some point in 2016 and has huge upside. He’s got to throw more strikes. Tonkin himself fits into this category.
YOUNG FLAMETHROWERS (RH RP)
JT Chargois sure had an impressive spring debut on Thursday night. He coaxed three weak ground balls with his mid-to-upper-90s fastball, solid slurve and good change-up. He missed 2013 and 2014 due to injury, but he returned in 2015. He began in Ft. Myers, but he worked up to Chattanooga where he became the closer for the Southern League champions.
Jake Reed came on with two on and one out in the 2nd on Thursday. He showed his mid-90s fastball, slider and a lot of movement. He needed a few pitches, but he got the double play. He was drafted in 2014 and dominated in two levels plus the AFL. In 2015, he jumped to AA where he struggled. After time in Ft. Myers he returned to the Lookouts, and then he pitched well in the AFL.
Nick Burdi, like Chargois, can touch triple digits, and he has a strong slider too. He was terrific in the AFL, looking like he had found some control and had a great slider working. If he can continue with those pitches he will be up soon.These three are not likely to make the Opening Day roster, but all three of them could be ready within a month or two of the season.
MINOR LEAGUE SIGNINGS (RH RP)
The Twins signed veteran reliever Brandon Kintzler to a minor league deal. He had a couple of good years before a leg injury cost him much of his 2015 season.
MINOR LEAGUE SIGNINGS (LH RP)
The Twins brought back Aaron Thompson who was good for them the first four or five weeks of the season, and then struggled and went to AAA. But, he could be adequate in the short-term. The Twins signed two guys out of independent ball who won’t make the team, Dan Runzler and Buddy Boschers, but could make an impression in spring training and be an option later. The one veteran lefty reliever with an opportunity, most likely, to make the Opening Day roster is Fernando Abad. He’s just past 30, and he’s had some big league success. We’ll see. Though he is no longer on the 40-man roster, Logan Darnell could fill a left-handed reliever (or long-reliever) role out of the bullpen for the Twins in 2016. Darnell is not on the 40-man roster because the Twins signed lefty Mike Strong, who will compete for a job in Chattanooga or Rochester this spring at age 27.
Taylor Rogers had a rough - yes, really rough - 2016 spring debut on Thursday night. The first five batters reached, three scored, before he got the final three batters out. He even gave up back-to-back doubles to left-handers. However, of 202 lefties he faced in 2015 in AAA, he gave up just three extra-base hits (all doubles). He has a track record of dominating lefties. No, he’s never really pitched out of the bullpen, but he has the potential to be really, really good. High upside, lacking in experience.
I’ll put 27-year-old Ryan O’Rourke in this category too. He spent the second half of 2015 with the Twins. He has made a career out of dominating left-handers as well. He did that with the Twins, at least until late in the season when he was used sparingly and in situations where he had to get both lefties and righties out.
Mason Melotakis is potentially the left-handed equivalent to Burdi and Chargois. He missed all of 2015 but came back in Instructs hitting 97. He is a three-pitch pitcher with very nasty stuff. He really just needs to get some innings in the minors before throwing him into the big leagues. But he’s another that shouldn’t surprise us if we see him a lot in 2016.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
I mean, it’s going to mean something different to everyone. Have I mentioned Tony Sipp or Antonio Bastardo? No, because I fully understand not wanting to go three years on them. That is especially true as upside guys like Yorman Landa, Brandon Peterson and Trevor Hildenberger get closer too.
I think the key points are these:
- The Twins have four guys at the back end of the bullpen that they can, most likely, rely upon. (Glen Perkins, Kevin Jepsen, Trevor May and Casey Fien)
- Michael Tonkin and Ricky Nolasco likely have the upper hand early in spring training on roster spots.
- The Twins could go with veteran relievers. They brought a couple in with some big league success (Fernando Abad, Brandon Kintzler). There are still a couple out there who the Twins could sign if things go poorly for the other lefties this spring (Franklyn Morales, Randy Choate, Joe Beimel). Based on the volatility of relief pitchers, any of them could be good, or bad, for the year.
- The Twins could choose to have their final bullpen spot or two filled by high upside pitchers that can be brought along slowly in lower-leverage situations. The fact that they have a bunch of options means that they shouldn’t be afraid to send these guys up and down from time to time throughout the season.
So, who are the highest upside guys right now? In my mind, there are five guys that I would consider going with early in the season. Alex Meyer has huge upside. JT Chargois and Nick Burdi have the biggest upsides, and are both very nearly ready. Jake Reed is close to that level as well. Mason Melotakis has a huge upside, is left-handed, and now just needs to work some innings. He may not be down long. And, Taylor Rogers in a low-leverage situation where he can go 1-2 innings, or just go against left-handers, can be very good.
That is list of six guys who may be ready in 2016. We thought some of them would be ready in 2015, and they weren’t. It’s possible that they won’t be again in 2016. If not, that shows bigger issues in the organization that likely need to be addressed. The talent is there, and they need to get to the big leagues.
The only way to get them experience is to give them experience. That obviously starts this spring. They will take their lumps. So will veterans. So, the Twins (and fans) need to decide whether they want the lumps taken by a veteran like Matt Thornton or guys who could become the next Matt Thornton (circa 2008-2010). There is no way for the Twins (or fans) to know what the right decision is for 2016. That’s why they play the games.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE
These veteran versus high-upside, unproven talent questions happen all over the place. Consider the starting rotation. In theory, it’s possible that the Twins could decide on a rotation of Santana, Hughes, Gibson, Nolasco and Milone and let Duffey and Berrios go to Rochester. Duffey is pretty solidly penciled in to the starting rotation, but Berrios has very little chance to be on the Opening Day roster.
As fans, do we want the veteran like Nolasco, who has had some measure of success in the past, or do we want to see the high-upside of Berrios?
Behind the plate, do we want to see the veteran in Kurt Suzuki, or would we prefer to see John Ryan Murphy get more playing time?
There’s a reason that we want the Twins to go with Byron Buxton as their center fielder from Opening Day. It isn’t a certainty that he is ready right now. It’s a confidence that his upside and potential are very high. Meanwhile a certain sect of Twins fans were disappointed when Rajai Davis signed elsewhere. Signing Davis would affect a roster spot and, more important, playing time for Buxton, or Eddie Rosario, or eventually Max Kepler.
Some fans even see a scenario where trading an all-star, a proven veteran and a still-just-28-year-old Brian Dozier to make room for Jorge Polanco.
In 2006, we saw the Twins sign veterans Juan Castro and Tony Batista to man the left-side of the infield. By mid-June those two were gone and Jason Bartlett and Nick Punto took over, and the team took off.
That’s not to say that going with a veteran is always wrong either. On the right contract, a veteran can be great. The Twins have had plenty of success with minor league free agent signings in recent years (Jared Burton, Sam Deduno, Chris Colabello, Casey Fien, etc.). They’ve had success, at least for one year with major league signings (Phil Hughes, Josh Willingham). They’ve had failures with free agent signings too (Lamb, Nolasco, etc). Unfortunately in baseball, played by people as it is, there is no way to guarantee what kind of performance you will get from any player, veteran, or rookie.
In 1991, the Twins signed Jack Morris, who wasn’t very good the two previous seasons in Detroit. They could have gone with the young guy with upside, like David West or something. They signed veteran Chili Davis rather than going with someone like Paul Sorrento. A year earlier, they had traded prospects for an upper-30s Bert Blyleven, and they re-acquired a long-time veteran Roy Smalley. I guess they were bringing back the gang, right?
So what is the 'right' strategy, and can the answer to that question change? In other words, was the answer different during the 90-loss seasons than in 2016 when the team is expecting to compete for a playoff berth?
We are two games into spring training. Opening Day is a month away. A lot of decisions will be made. Some will prove right. Some will prove wrong. But will the philosophy be to go with veterans, or will it be to go with youth and talent? My guess is that it will be a little of both. The important thing after making those Opening Day roster decisions, will be how quickly changes will be made.