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  • Ranking the Twins' Internal Relief Options

    Nick Nelson

    It's that time of year again: where we come to recognize a rapidly degrading bullpen, and start frantically searching outside for help. 

    The trade deadline is still two months away, so let's review some of the more immediate options available to help steady a struggling relief corps.

    Image courtesy of Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

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    The Twins have been letting a lot of winnable games slip away. In terms of what they can do to change that, "improved relief pitching" ranks decidedly second behind "hitting better." But the latter, for now, simply needs to work itself out. The lineup is what it is.

    The bullpen is more amorphous and fluid. Relief hierarchies are often shifting and – as we've seen – certain spots can be seen as interchangeable. The Twins have been churning through relievers at a high rate with two main goals: keeping fresh arms available to consume innings, and uncovering hidden gems to elevate into bigger roles.

    The latter focus is growing more urgent as attrition and tribulation strike Minnesota's late-inning stable. While Jhoan Duran and Jorge López have generally been rock solid, stability is elusive elsewhere. 

    Griffin Jax is continually fumbling in the bag in big spots. Caleb Thielbar and Jorge Alcalá are on the injured list. Emilio Pagán is ... Emilio Pagán. 

    The Twins are experiencing an early payoff with one of their sleeper gambles, as Brock Stewart blossoms into a high-leverage performer. They're hoping they've got something in José De León, too, but the jury's still very much out there.

    Having already spent those two bullets, what's left? Between the waiver claims, prospects, and wild cards, here are eight internal candidates to join the bullpen, in order of how appealing they are at this moment:

    1. Oliver Ortega, RHP
    The Twins claimed Ortega off waivers from the Angels in January, then DFA'ed him four days later, outrighting him to Triple-A after he went unclaimed. A nifty bit of roster maneuvering, and the result is that Ortega stands ready in the minors as a 26-year-old with considerable big-league experience.

    In his first appearance for the Saints, on April 2nd, Ortega gave up two runs in one inning. Then, he spent a month on the injured list. Since being activated on May 3rd, he has allowed zero runs on three hits in 7 ⅓ innings. 

    I'm not sure how much upside Ortega really offers – a Stewart-esque emergence is probably wishful thinking – but he throws hard and he's a solid piece of established depth. Last year with the Angels he posted a 3.71 ERA in 34 innings. The Twins would need to make room to re-add him to the 40-man roster.

    2. Jordan Balazovic, RHP
    Balazovic's comeback campaign got off to a rocky start in spring training, but now – after a slight delay – it does seem to be coming together. The big righty has looked very good at Triple-A, registering a 3.18 ERA and 12.3 K/9 rate in 22 ⅔ innings. He has allowed 17 hits and only two home runs.

    His usage has been interesting. After building up at first with some short-burst outings, the Twins have basically stretched Balazovic out to the point where he's throwing 75 pitches and 3-to-4 innings each fifth or sixth day as a general cadence. They're clearly not grooming him for a traditional starting role, but Balazovic could easily enter the fold as a multi-inning power arm, which has immense value in today's game.

    Of course, that's putting the cart before the horse. We're talking about a month's worth of good performance from a pitcher who struggled mightily in Triple-A throughout last year. But before that, he was widely viewed as the Twins' best pitching prospect. At 24, he looks ready, and since he's already on the 40-man roster it's a simple logistical arrangement.. 

    With his outstanding performance in St. Paul, Balazovic may be punching his ticket to the majors. (And yes, as always, the pun was intended.)

    3. Brent Headrick, LHP
    By now Headrick is familiar – he's made a strong impression as an out-of-nowhere 40-man roster addition during the offseason who splashed onto the scene in April with some very strong long-relief outings. 

    There's much to like about Headrick. He's handled everything that's been thrown at him with aplomb, rising from Single-A to the majors in a seamless flurry. He's got legitimate bat-missing stuff from the left side – especially valuable with Caleb Thielbar down and Jovani Moran failing to inspire confidence.

    The reason Headrick isn't higher on this list is simply because the Twins seem committed to keeping him stretched as a starter, which is understandable given the attrition their rotation has faced. He's a nice piece to have around as a long reliever, but as we've seen, that's a tough practical proposition on the roster.

    4. Blayne Enlow, RHP
    Enlow was, ironically, the player who got designated for assignment when the Twins claimed Ortega back in January. It appeared the front office was giving up on its very first pitching development project – a high school star snagged with a big bonus in their inaugural draft (2017). 

    It's been a winding road for Enlow, who was derailed by Tommy John surgery and the lost pandemic year. Maybe that's why he was able to pass through waivers and stay in the organization, much to the Twins' favor. 

    Back at Double-A, he's been outstanding in a starting role, posting a 3.28 ERA and 47-to-10 K/BB ratio in 35 ⅔ innings. For now the Twins are keeping him in such a regimen – his last time out he threw 81 pitches, striking out 10 over 5 ⅓ innings of one-run ball. As we've established, starting depth is a good thing, but in Enlow's case, converting back to the bullpen offers the fastest and realest chance to make a short-term impact. 

    The Twins could consider moving the 24-year-old up to Triple-A for a relief crash course ahead of a shot in the majors.

    5. Simeon Woods Richardson, RHP
    SWR is in the same category as Enlow, in that he's currently being treated as a standard starter but could have a quicker and more beneficial path to the majors via the bullpen. In Woods Richardson's case, the Twins might be more hesitant to enact such a role change – he's only 22, and still developing – but his stuff isn't really playing as a starter, as evidenced by a 6.49 ERA. 

    Woods Richardson is on the 40-man roster. That creates a bit more urgency in finding a way you can use him, as opposed to dedicating more pure development time in the minors. His stuff is verifiably good but he doesn't seem to be quite harnessing it in the current role. It would be easier to set that aside and stay patient if Woods Richardson didn't have the clear potential to help address the major-league team's needs in a different capacity.

    6. Cody Laweryson, RHP
    The former 19th-round draft pick was mentioned by Cody Pirkl among his "deep dive" bullpen options during the weekend, and I'm inclined to list him here as well. As CP noted, Laweryson lacks the attributes of a prototypical high-caliber relief weapon – he doesn't throw that hard or wow you with his arsenal – but has consistently gotten results at every level thanks to a quirky delivery and pinpoint command.

    I dunno, maybe some sort of Pat Neshek magic going on here. Laweryson is 25 and has the ability to provide length, routinely tossing multiple innings.

    7. Ronny Henriquez, RHP
    He bears mentioning because he's on the 40-man roster, but Henriquez – acquired alongside Isiah Kiner-Falefa in the Mitch Garver trade – has shown little to suggest he's ready to make a positive impact on the big-league club.

    Since getting a late start due to a spring elbow injury, Henriquez has scuffled at St. Paul, allowing eight earned runs in 9 ⅓ innings for a 7.36 ERA. Right now he looks more like a potential DFA candidate than impact reinforcement.

    8. Josh Winder, RHP
    The same, sadly, can be said about Winder, who is also occupying a 40-man roster spot and spinning his wheels at Triple-A. He has a 9.69 ERA for the Saints and his control – such a key component of his previous success – has gone totally amiss. It's hard to believe Winder is fully healthy, because he doesn't resemble the pitcher we saw early last year, prior to the persistent shoulder issues.

    The Twins don't have the luxury of being very patient. Winder is 26 and showing no positive signs. Other players – relievers, specifically – are vying for spots on the 40-man roster. That includes Ortega, Enlow, and Laweryson, who we've mentioned here, as well as Austin Brice, who was recently signed to a minor-league deal and brings a ton of MLB experience.


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    58 minutes ago, USAFChief said:

    Short version: need luck, because there's nothing very intriguing in the system. 

    Or they are trying to make everything intriguing a starter. 

    As an organizational philosophy I'm a huge fan of getting most pitching prospects a run at the bullpen in a non-mop up role.  It's not the Twins way but I think it should be.  Cut SWR and Balazovic loose for an inning at a time in plus situations.  Get the feet wet in the bigs, throw hard and throw strikes.  Get some important outs.  It doesn't doom them to a life in the bullpen and may better prepare them to start in the future.  Just using them in the 4-5 inning garbage spots isn't doing any long term good imo.  

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    27 minutes ago, Jocko87 said:

    Or they are trying to make everything intriguing a starter. 

    As an organizational philosophy I'm a huge fan of getting most pitching prospects a run at the bullpen in a non-mop up role.  It's not the Twins way but I think it should be.  Cut SWR and Balazovic loose for an inning at a time in plus situations.  Get the feet wet in the bigs, throw hard and throw strikes.  Get some important outs.  It doesn't doom them to a life in the bullpen and may better prepare them to start in the future.  Just using them in the 4-5 inning garbage spots isn't doing any long term good imo.  

    I also agree SWR and Balazovic would be good BP options.  I also like Hedrick a lot, mostly with Theilbar out.

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    If the big team looses faith in any of the current guys (the big team losing faith, not the mob),  I think you could realistically see about any one of those mentioned coming up and getting an opportunity.  The general volatility of relief pitching and situational decisions could mean callups for guys you don't expect.  

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    With the injuries to two starters and SWR's apparent struggles, I would rate Headrick as the first option for a spot start for the Twins. I think keeping him available for that spot precludes him from being a candidate for the major league bullpen at this time. The same argument might be made for Woods Richardson.

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    Here is the #1, 2, and 3, and 4 problem with the pen, in reverse order.

    When the offense has been as confounding/frustrating, it makes every single BP run magnified that much more. An injury to Thielbar is pretty aweful.and Jax not being Jax is a poor and unexpected development. Some very poor luck has lead to bad performance. I think he's pressing and has lost either confidence, or has just the vision of his stuff and what he can do. Thielbar healthy in a couple weeks, and Jax finding his previous self, maybe a different mix of his pitches, suddenly things don't look so bad. We've seen what Jax can do. I don't doubt his mental strength, or his stuff. But it's up to him and the pitching coaches to get his head and stuff straight. And if they do, the top 4 is fine again.

    Then you have Moran settling  down and looking better. Then add Stewart. Just being honest and real, a better Moran...which he's starting to look like lately...Thielbar back, and Stewart, this pen is potentially 6 deep. 

    The FO should have NEVER brought Pagan back. And for some crazy reason that none of of us understand, they did. And they could have taken his $3.5M with a little more and taken a SHOT for a FA that frankly, couldn't have been worse. I understood believing in Alcala, but why not hedge your bets? 

    So there is a real  chance that Jax gets himself right, Moran keeps getting better and better, and Stewart is a real find. With Thielbar back in a couple of weeks, and Pagan HOPEFULLY FINALLY GONE, this pen actually looks pretty good. It does start with Jax finding himself again, but doesn't just end with him. But if the staff and Jax himself can figure out what's been going wrong other than some bad luck and maybe trying too hard to compensate, or pressing, or a bad pitch mix, the entire BP situation changes. We've seen what he can do.

    As to the OP:

    1] I liked the Ortega add. I don't care about age for a BP arm. Sometimes a pitcher converts later in their career and finds a role. And he might surprise, but I'm just not expecting anything at this point other than another AAAA arm. But he surprises me as the #1 choice as he's already behind Stewart and maybe even De Leon who is "questionable" despite an OK debut. But I'm open to a live arm that might surprise. And maybe he does.

    2] Balazovic.  Why in hell wouldn't you keep him stretched out? I understand the Cardinals and Rays and other teams that would allow a potential SP to make their debut in the pen to get acclimated to the ML level. Makes complete sense to me. His stuff might just be too good to be the 8th man in the pen. But it's an opportunity to shine and help the club and I'm all in. But deliberately setting him up for 3-4 IP, as the FO has stated they might  be doing, is WRONG.  Just keep stretching him out and bring him up as needed. IF you bring him up, with his stuff, does he have to be the 8th man long arm? That might be a waste of opportunity. 

    3] We just might need both Balazovic AND Headrick before the year is done in the rotation. But just like Balazovic,  the parent club is more important. Headrick CAN be the 8th man,  long man, but does he have to be? IMO, he's flashed enough so far I would have had him up when Thielbar got hurt to add a LHRP arm to the pen to work with Moran. 

    4] SWR never appealed to me until he got a real chance to impress in 2022. And then I bought in. But so far, this year, I'm starting to wonder where all they hype has been. He's still very young. And I get that. And I'd leave him in the rotation for now with ZERO idea of adding him to the mix. He's going to sink or swim at some point. But he's not ready for MLB at this point. 

    5] I've always thought Laweryson should be a great middle man along with someone like Headrick or Funderburk. He's been having a quietly good AAA season. Always thought you should build a top 7 in your pen, ideally,  with a STRONG first 5...4 RH and 2 LH...and one spot you can rotate for prospect arms to contribute and become acclimated. 

    6] I think there's a good chance a healthy Henriquez helps the second half. He's destined for the pen. 

    The Twins pen isn't desperate if Jax gets right and Thielbar comes back soon. But there are a couple of options that could potentially help, no doubt. But i wouldnt want to stick Headrick and Balazovic in the pen full time right now. But if either or both could help 2023 in the short term, I'm all in.


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    My biggest concern is that the coaches have shown little to nothing that they are capable of straightening out Jax or any other reliever. They couldn't do it with Colome in 2021 or Pagan in 2022, why is Jax in 2023 going to be any different? Rocco has publicly stated on his commitment to continue to use Jax in high leverage situations which only proves his ineptness at running a team. Good Managers make adjustments not to lose games yet we have seen Rocco make the same mistake for 3 years in a row now. Also, keeping Balazovic stretched out for a long relief role is okay and my guess is he's being groomed to be a Cole Sands replacement if that situational role needs a change. But at the same time there's not a whole lot of sense taking a pitcher that is performing well at AAA and more or less making him a mop-up pitcher in the bigs. If he's capable of being promoted based on performance then give him 1 or 2 innings at a time to prove himself at the majors and let the Pagans on the team be the mop-up guys. There comes a time when you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by taking that chance yet this FO and Manager are willing to lose games using the same strategy over and over and they learn nothing from it. 

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    Laweryson should be higher as a relief option, IMHO. He's been pretty impressive ever since going to the AFL and looks like someone who can get guys out. He hunted Ks pretty effectively at basically every level and has gotten harder to hit...he looks like the best internal option to me to come up and get guys out in the middle innings right now. Sometimes you have to trust performance over things like velocity.

    I'd have to say they need to keep Balazovic, SWR, and Headrick stretched out as starting options, because injuries just happen to starters, so again, they'd have to drop lower for me. Even if Balazovic isn't in a traditional starting role, I think they need to keep him throwing more innings.

    Ortega is just behind Laweryson for me. He looks like a fungible reliever in a lot of ways, but he's getting it done in Saint Paul and has the experience.

    Laweryson, then Ortega for me before trying to flip any of the starters.

    And leave Enlow alone. Dude is finally healthy and getting back on track. Gotta think long-term with him and set him up to be part of next season's "shadow rotation" waiting in Saint Paul. 

    Winder has really disappointed,

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    20 hours ago, tarheeltwinsfan said:

    Maeda should be willing to help the Twins any way he can at this point in his Twins tenure. He owes it to the Twins. 

    @William K Johnson & @tarheeltwinsfan I tend to agree with you. Not necessarily that he owes it to the Twins, he owes them nothing.

    But considering Maeda's recent past, and especially if Varland keeps this up, Maeda can best help the team by pitching out of the pen, where he has proven himself to be dominant in the past.

    (Related: His time missed to injury this season pretty much preclude him from reaching monetary incentives in his contract, so that should not be a point of contention to a relief role as it has been in the past.)

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    Let's pump the brakes a bit on Stewart, who owns a 6.75 BB/9, a 0 HR/9, and a 100% strand rate. He's been passable, but has really only pulled a half branch ahead of Pagan on the bullpen trust tree. Passable is all he needs to be to hold onto a spot for now, but he's hardly secure.

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    28 minutes ago, Minny505 said:

    Let's pump the brakes a bit on Stewart, who owns a 6.75 BB/9, a 0 HR/9, and a 100% strand rate. He's been passable, but has really only pulled a half branch ahead of Pagan on the bullpen trust tree. Passable is all he needs to be to hold onto a spot for now, but he's hardly secure.

    His appearances have been quite exciting, the opposite of what we are looking for.  He had a nice clean inning against the Angels and it was very boring but effective.  If he can stay boring he can be a weapon but hes not there yet.

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    Too lazy to look up, but isn't Schulfer (sp?) supposed to be a possible something?  Ah, I just looked him up: 2.70 ERA but only 13 k in 20 ip.  That won't do.

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