Monday's game against the Tigers offered ominous signs of potential things to come. Joe Smith, who allowed zero runs in his first 16 appearances of the season, has now allowed four runs in his past four. He couldn't dance his way out of a leadoff triple in the seventh at Detroit, letting two runs in on three hits and taking the loss.
The regression he's experiencing may be a harbinger for the relief corps as a whole.
According to Win Probability Added, which quantifies the percent change in a team's chances of winning from one event to the next, Minnesota's bullpen entered play Monday as the fourth-best in baseball, adding more than two victories to the ledger through clutch performances in tight situations. With the Twins possessing a 9-5 record in one-run games, that sounds about right.
However, according to Wins Above Replacement, which seeks to paint a more process-driven picture of value, Twins relievers have been the second-WORST in all of baseball – dead last in the American League. FanGraphs pegs this group as sub-replacement level on whole.
That is the case despite breakout star Jhoan Duran pitching incredibly well at the back end. In fact, his status as a crux point in this Twins bullpen might be the scariest thing of all. Without him around, the unit would look dramatically worse and less imposing.
In order to avoid turning too often to guys like Tyler Duffey and Emilio Pagán, who are hard to trust, the Twins will need to lean hard on Duran. But we're talking about a guy who threw 16 total innings the past two years, and who dealt with a serious elbow strain for almost all of 2021. There's a huge risk in overusing him. From a big-picture perspective, they should probably err toward underusing him.
Reinforcements will be needed as we get into the heart of the summer. Yennier Canó unfortunately did not make a strong impression during his first turn with the big-league club. Danny Coulombe will be out for a while after aggravating his hip injury. Jorge Alcala's return is not imminent.
Right now, there's a lot of pressure on the likes of Juan Minaya, Jovani Moran, and Trevor Megill to establish themselves as viable options in leverage, which is not a great place for the Twins to be.
(This is where I must obligatorily point out that – as Chris Paddack embarks on the long road back from Tommy John surgery – Taylor Rogers has a 1.17 ERA for the Padres and leads the world in saves, although he did cough up a game to Pittsburgh the other night by allowing three runs.)
Minnesota's bullpen has outperformed expectations and underlying metrics like no other in the game. As the season progresses, that balancing act becomes trickier and trickier. So far Rocco Baldelli has mostly been putting relievers in a position to succeed and relievers have mostly been getting it done.
How much longer will that sustain? Unless a few guys other than Duran can step up, I fear Monday's slip-up was only the beginning.