Plenty of Reasons for Optimism in Minnesota Twins Bullpen

Photo credit: Cumulus Media

A big point of contention for Twins fans over the past calendar year has been the bullpen. And while expectations were low heading into 2015, the team exceeded them. The bullpen, however, did not.

Absent context, the bullpen’s numbers don’t look that bad, right? The team cobbled together a 3.95 ERA, a nice 6.9 K/9 and was one of just a handful of American League bullpens to issue fewer than three walks per nine frames. Nothing about that necessarily stands out to the untrained eye, but nothing looks terribly egregious, either.

But context is important — very important. Just three bullpens in the AL fanned fewer than 8.0 batters per nine last year. The other two were the Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers, with the Twins in last place. That’s a familiar spot, as the Twins’ staff on the whole has been last in the AL in K/9 the last five years running. To address those woes, Boston added Craig Kimbrel (14.5 career K/9) in the offseason; Detroit added a trio of guys in Justin Wilson (9.7 K/9 in ‘15), Mark Lowe (1.96 ERA) and the venerable Francisco Rodriguez (2.21 ERA, 9.8 K/9). The Twins added…..Fernando Abad on a minor league deal.

How much did the Twins miss the league average marks by? Let’s have a look:
Statistic – Twins – AL Avg.

ERA – 3.95 – 3.77

FIP – 4.20 – 3.94

K/9 – 6.9 – 8.4

BB/9 – 2.9 – 3.3

GB rate – 43 percent – 44.9 percent

Basically speaking, the team’s only saving grace in the bullpen was its disdain for the free pass. Besides that, not only was it a decidedly uninteresting unit that gave a number of innings to low-ceiling vets like Aaron Thompson and Blaine Boyer, rather than seeing the limits of younger guys like Michael Tonkin.

It wouldn’t be fair to ignore some of the positives the bullpen put together in 2015, either. Boyer’s results (2.49 ERA) didn’t match his peripherals (4.5 K/9, 4.00 FIP), and that turned out to be a good thing. Thompson had a run early in the season where he was unhittable. Glen Perkins was so great in the first half he made the All Star team. Kevin Jepsen was fantastic (1.61 ERA) after coming over in a deal to stabilize the back end, and helped keep the unit together during Perkins’ tumultuous second half. And finally, Trevor May was a revelation after a move to the bullpen, posting a 2.87 ERA and 10.6 K/9 while limiting opposing batters to a .250/.305/.392 line.

And the reason for optimism really starts with the latter trio, who never really worked together with any form of cohesion in 2015. Jepsen’s acquisition and dominance coincides pretty much directly with Perkins’ struggles. From the time Jepsen was acquired from the Rays on July 31, Perkins made 17 appearances with a 6.00 ERA and 1.007 OPS against. In short, it was like Perkins-Jepsen-May invoked their version of Freebird Rule. Back in the NWA days of professional wrestling, the Fabulous Freebirds inspired a rule where any two of the three guys in their stable could defend their standing Tag Team titles. And while that’s a good strategy in professional wrestling, it’s pretty hard to distract an umpire while one of your teammates pulls a fast one. Getting these three guys healthy and on the same page is a great start to putting together a solid bullpen.

Each of those three pitchers has the stuff or quite frankly the track record to strike out a batter per inning, which in essence is what needs to be done in this day and age to be a better than average reliever, short of inducing a ton of grounders. None of these guys do that. Jepsen fanned just 7.6 batters per nine innings in 2015, but that mark improved when he moved to the Twins, and was 10.4 and 9.0 in the previous two years with the Angels. With a big fastball and good secondary stuff, he’s a nice setup man who would be an elite one with a bit better control.

Moving Casey Fien from the top setup role to more of a middle relief role is big, at least if he’s unable to come close to regaining his previous form. From a results standpoint, Fien pitched well enough — his 3.55 ERA was a three-year low and he walked almost nobody — but his strikeout rate continued a three-year tumble, bottoming out at 5.8 per nine. Fien battled shoulder issues all season long, but even if he can’t return to something like the 7.2 K/9 he posted in 2014 — still well off his 2013 pace but reasonable — not walking anyone (1.1 BB/9 last year) is a nice trait to have in middle relief, especially if you’re bringing in a guy to put out a fire to keep the game close in the sixth inning, for instance. Fien completely lacks the groundball penchant one might like for a guy to induce double plays to get out of jams, but with Target Field still playing relatively big to left-handed hitters, it’s a manageable situation.

It’s not all doom and gloom with the previously mentioned Abad, either. The 30-year-old left-hander slumped to a 4.15 ERA and 8.5 K/9 in 2015, but given what we know about the team’s bullpen construction a season ago — especially with Brian Duensing operating as the top lefty — there’s still plenty of room for that to help. And keep in mind, Abad is just one year removed from a 1.57 ERA while nuking opposing hitters to the tune of a .499 OPS — with no real platoon split. If Abad can get back to his best — the Twins believe he was tipping pitches — he’s an asset against both sides. If he cannot, he’s still likely to be an upgrade on Duensing and has held left-handed hitters to a .715 OPS in his career. It’s a low-risk move where the Twins can cut the cord anytime, but there’s an added bonus. If Abad pitches well, the Twins actually would own his rights for 2017 as well. There’s a pretty low chance he’s as good as Tony Sipp or Antonio Bastardo, but for the price, it sure seems worth the risk.

Pushing everyone else down a rung might stand to upset some players, but in all honesty it only makes the bullpen stronger. With Tonkin, Ryan Pressly and J.R. Graham jostling for what might only be one or even two bullpen spots, the Twins are in a nice position to take whichever of this hard-throwing trio of guys is throwing best. Complicating things is that Tonkin is out of options, and the Twins still don’t really know what they have in him, as he’s thrown a combined 53.2 big league innings the last two years. In retrospect, it might have been better to just give him some run than seeing what Boyer or Tim Stauffer could offer. Being out of options probably gives Tonkin the leg up, as does the fact that he hasn’t pitched too poorly (3.35 career ERA) in the big leagues despite yo-yo’ing back and forth. He’s not an ideal candidate to throw multiple innings, which does complicate things at the front of the bullpen. Speaking of that….

….another complicating factor that’ll keep the Twins from rostering a young reliever is Ricky Nolasco, who is most likely headed to the front end of the bullpen to take on any role the team sees fit after two tumultuous seasons. Nolasco’s halfway into his four-year deal with the Twins, and has posted a 5.64 ERA in 196.1 innings. That’s 196.1 innings over two years, or a mark he exceeded in individual seasons three times prior to joining the team as a free agent. To say it’s been a rough go is completely understating it, but maybe there’s some reason for optimism with a possible shift to the ‘pen? Consider this: Nolasco has never been a hard thrower, and his best pitches in terms of results have been the offspeed stuff. If a move to the pen adds a couple ticks to his low-90s heater, there’s a chance it could become a plus pitch with his solid curveball. It’s by no means a slam dunk, but it’s a formula we’ve seen across the league, not only in Minnesota with Perkins and Duensing but in Kansas City with Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar. Don’t expect a miracle, but don’t close the door here either. The Twins should have done this with Mike Pelfrey; now they might not have a choice with Nolasco.

Finally, there’s the most exciting part of the bullpen: the kids. Alex Meyer was recently named Keith Law’s No. 1 relief pitching prospect on ESPN Insider, an honor not typically bestowed with much confidence but even more interesting in light of his struggles a season ago. That optimism is not alone, as Steamer projections see a guy who could strike out a batter per inning and accumulate an fWAR of 0.6. For a reliever, that’s really solid. It’s unclear if Meyer will make the team out of spring training, but results will carry him as far as possible. He could literally be a long-term long guy, or leapfrog guys like May to be the next closer-in-waiting. Time will tell. One thing that was clear was that Meyer was much better adjusted in the bullpen last season; his last 11 appearances out of the Rochester bullpen were electric, with a 1.82 ERA, .536 OPS against and 26-13 K/BB ratio in 24.2 innings. Walks will always be what holds him back, but there’s very, very strong potential here.

Taylor Rogers is another intriguing arm, and a strong candidate to take over as the bullpen lefty if Abad’s efforts prove futile. Rogers worked nearly exclusively as a starter last year, but held left-handed hitters to a .402 OPS over the entire year. If the team doesn’t view him as a long-term starter, he could help as a LOOGY. There’s no shortage of lefty help on the way on the 40-man roster by the way, as Mason Melotakis and Randy Rosario both project as future bullpen lefties with really, really strong profiles. And let’s not ignore the potential of Nick Burdi, Jake Reed or J.T. Chargois to rocket their way up to the big leagues on the basis of big-time fastballs. It appeared as though the plan last year was to build a shell of a bullpen and hope the kids broke through, and when it didn’t happen, guys like Boyer and Thompson got significant run. The plan hasn’t changed too much this year, but the hope is, the kids are a year and a step closer to making this one of the better units in the game again. It probably won’t happen this year, but there’s a much more optimistic feel this time around.

Photo credit: Brian Curski, Cumulus Media

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