Fans focus on relief pitcher performance because of when those pitchers come into a game. In high leverage situations, each pitch has magnified importance on the game's outcome. Relievers also pitch a small number of innings per season, and a small sample size magnifies their flaws. Here are three bullpen issues that have transpired over the last handful of seasons.
Strike 1: Sticking with Struggling Veterans
During the 2021 season, the Twins signed Alex Colome as a veteran pitcher with a strong track record as a late-inning reliever. Minnesota gave him the bulk of the save opportunities in April, and he proceeded to have one of the worst months of any pitcher in Twins history. He blew three saves while posting an 8.31 ERA and allowing a .952 OPS to opposing batters. The Twins were out of the division race, and Colome's performance was one of the biggest reasons for the team's struggles. It could have been easy for the Twins to cut Colome, but it no longer mattered what he did on a team heading for a last-place finish.
After trading Taylor Rogers, Minnesota expected to get crucial innings from veterans like Emilio Pagan, Tyler Duffey, and Joe Smith. Duffey and Smith struggled significantly, but the team was forced to keep them on the roster until players were acquired at the trade deadline. Pagan continues to get opportunities because he has strong strikeout numbers. However, he has been one of baseball's worst relievers in recent years, and the team has hung on to him for too long.
Strike 2: Short Starts Mean More Bullpen Innings
Minnesota acquired two veteran pitchers to add to the back of the rotation this season, Chris Archer and Dylan Bundy. They are tied for the team lead in games started because the Twins have continued to manage their workload. Archer has averaged just over four innings per start, and he has yet to pitch into the sixth inning. Bundy has averaged 4.91 innings per appearance with four starts of six innings or more. This strategy has kept both players on the field but also puts added pressure on the bullpen.
Baseball's evolving usage of starters will continue to have long-term effects on how bullpens are structured. Few teams want their starters to face a line-up for the third time, which results in relievers entering the game in the fifth or sixth inning. When this happens, three or four relievers are asked to finish the game. That scenario can work in a team's favor for one game, but the next day there is a domino effect as the bullpen's backend will need to be exposed even if it is a close game.
Strike 3: Not Addressing the Bullpen in the Offseason
Looking at the Twins' current front office, it is clear that they don't prioritize bullpen acquisitions in the offseason. In 2022, the Twins made Joe Smith their lone free agent addition to the bullpen while also swapping Rogers for Pagan before Opening Day. Last season, Alex Colome and Hansel Robles were acquired on cheap one-year deals, and neither was particularly effective. Luckily, Jhoan Duran emerged as a dominant late-inning option this season, or the team might be in an even more precarious position.
Signing free agent relievers is not an exact science. Some top free agent relievers have become strong contributors recently, while others have faded away. Minnesota's front office hasn't prioritized bullpen acquisitions, so the team was forced to address the relief core at the trade deadline.
In the long run, the Twins need to adjust their relief pitcher philosophy, or these issues will continue to follow the team in the years ahead. Do you think there are any other problems with the team's bullpen? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.