The Twins have played with using a long reliever in the bullpen at times in the last few years and found that the role is inconsistent and sometimes not worth the trouble. In 2021, Randy Dobnak made the team as a long reliever as the team’s assumed sixth starter. The downside became evident almost immediately. When starters exited in a close game, it made more sense to go to a high-leverage reliever to keep the game intact. The Twins almost never found themselves having a sizable lead or deficit when the starter exited. Dobnak would go upwards of a week without throwing a single pitch, and he looked like that was very much the case when he did finally get some action.
It can be argued that we learned that a long reliever role can’t be filled by a legitimate starting pitching option, at least not if you want them to develop or be ready to fill in if a member of the rotation goes down. This leaves the role to such a specific type of player that it becomes kind of hard to believe the Twins would actually choose to dedicate a roster spot to such a role. That being said, Rocco Baldelli continues to hint that he would prefer to go this route, so it’s worthwhile to explore some options on who could fill such a role.
Sands is already walking the starter/reliever tightrope. The Twins were clear they weren’t planning on anyone making a formal switch from starting to relieving this spring, but Sands was listed as the closest arm to doing so. Sands already holds a 40-man roster spot and has options remaining, making him a prime candidate to serve as a long man on Opening Day. He also made spot appearances in this role in 2022 on occasion.
Sands is far from the next man up in the rotation, and for this reason, may serve this role better than someone like Bailey Ober who needs to be ready to fill a traditional starter’s role on a moment’s notice. Sands could use the opportunity to acclimate himself to a bullpen job, which seems like an eventual certainty for his career. He should still be able to provide 3+ innings of work in a pinch as well, which makes him a decent candidate.
While a long shot, it could once again be Dobnak to fill a long relief role. At this point, he’s buried in the rotational depth chart. He finally appears to be healthy, and while his unbelievable numbers in his debut are unlikely to be repeated, Dobnak could be serviceable and durable, making him a solid fit.
The issue of course is Dobnak’s lack of a 40-man spot after being outrighted off the 40-man roster this winter. The Twins can easily make space if they feel he’s the best man for the job. Though the money they committed to Dobnak is inconsequential, they do owe him a few million in the next few years. If he’s in a good place health-wise, the Twins could very well decide to get their money’s worth and see if Dobnak can make a resurgence in a different role. He’s been used more or less as a starter so far this spring, meaning he should be physically capable of filling bulk innings if his previously ailing finger is right.
José De León
The deepest of sleepers, De León is a former top prospect that was discussed as part of a return for Brian Dozier back when he was in the Dodgers system. Injuries have derailed a once-promising career, but he’s still fighting for a roster spot at 30 years old. De León came out on Sunday and showed that he still had plenty left in the tank, allowing two hits and one run in three spring innings and striking out six.
De León may not have a 40-man spot or options, but the right-hander is in a perfect situation with the Twins able to open a spot on the 40-man roster with ease. Rather than putting one of their young arms in an inconsistent role, the Twins could opt for adding a veteran to fill this job while being prepared to cut bait if it goes poorly. Keep an eye on De León’s performance in the World Baseball Classic in the coming weeks as well, as he’ll be departing to pitch for Puerto Rico this week.
There are other candidates that could take a long relief role and do reasonably well, but it’s likely the Twins avoid using young prospects such as Josh Winder or Simeon Woods Richardson because of the inconsistency that comes along with the job. Instead expect the Twins to look towards former starters turned relievers or more of the veteran expendable types to fill the role, if the Twins choose to go this route at all.
Are there any candidates you’d like to see take the long reliever role? Should the Twins bother using a long reliever at all? Let us know below!
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