Trevor Hildenberger has recorded three saves since Fernando Rodney was traded for a minor-leaguer during the waiver trade deadline. But he is not the Minnesota Twins closer. He’s just been the first guy tabbed to handle the ninth.
“I just think you have to go into it open-minded in the games,” said manager Paul Molitor. “To be honest with you, with Hildy getting off to a good start, (he’s the frontrunner), but it might just not play out that way.
“Hopefully you win enough games where you’ve got to choose somebody else because Hildy is going to be off for a day or something. I think other people will get in that spot eventually. It’s kind of a day-to-day thing in that spot after Fernando got traded.”
Rodney was dealt to the Oakland A’s on Aug. 9 for Dakota Chalmers, a Single-A prospect. Despite his reputation for getting into jams — creating the “Fernando Rodney Experience” — he converted 25 saves this season, only blowing six all year.
Ryan Pressly would have been a natural fit as the team’s next closer. At 29 years old and with an additional year of team control on his contract, he was in the prime of his career, and he owns an upper-90’s fastball and good breaking stuff that he used to baffle hitters in high-leverage situations this year. But he was dealt to the Houston Astros before the July 31 trade deadline, once the Twins knew they were sellers following the July 20-22 trip to Kansas City where they were swept by the lowly Royals.
Minnesota may look to the outside for a closer next year, as they did with Rodney before this season. But there are a few in-house candidates that are intriguing. Addison Reed was signed to be the set-up man this year and is likely the frontrunner if healthy, given his age, 29, and experience. Trevor May is finally back in the majors and has stuff that can be used in high leverage situations. Gabriel Moya, who arrived in the John Ryan Murphy trade, and Matt Magill could be part of the bullpen going forward, although they don’t profile to be closers.
The most intriguing bullpen piece may be Taylor Rogers, however, a lefty who throws in the mid-90s and added another pitch to his repertoire this season.
“He’s doing a lot better at getting righties out,” said Molitor. “He’s kinda added that second breaking ball. The curve is still there, but he’s kinda trying to add that harder slider, with a little different angle.”
Rogers is a compliment to Hildenberger, a righty who throws with a submarine motion. Molitor says he’ll play the matchups, and it may make sense to have a tandem closing out games down the stretch without a designated closer on the roster.
“It’s possible,” said Molitor. “It’ll depend on who you’re playing and how it’s stacked.
“Rogers has picked up a lot [this year], whether it was being a guy who I went to early on before we traded those guys or getting a chance to get back into hold situations. I’ve got a lot of confidence in him.”
Molitor is committed to using a closer, however, even at a time when major league teams are more open to using trusted relievers earlier in games, at pivotal points in the game, rather than just the eighth or ninth innings, and experimenting with an “opener” — a reliever that pitches the first inning before the starter comes in.
“If you got a guy that you know can lock down, it’s gonna probably be [him in] the majority of the games,” said Molitor. “Good teams are still gonna have closers, although Houston, last year, they…started going with those starters that had moved to the ‘pen from the postseason to get extended outings from them to close out games, and that worked out pretty well.”
Designating a closer typically helps the player, because he is able to know which inning he is pitching in and prepare in advance. And Molitor says he prefers to have players that are designated as the closer, set-up man and late-inning roles.
“For a long time, teams that were successful had a couple of guys, and now we’ve kind of extended it to the three, where Kansas City kinda set the tone a few years back,” said Molitor, referring to the Royals teams that went to the World Series in back to back years on the back of five-and-dive starters and one of the best bullpens in the league.
“It’s a feel for a club,” said Molitor, “When it’s in flux, and you’re trying different things, that can be fun too. You just have to find out over time if you got the right people in place to make it work.
“But most teams would prefer to have it a little bit more set back end.”
Molitor is fine experimenting with matchups and learning what he has in his bullpen, but eventually a closer will be named. Whether or not it is a player currently in a Twins uniform will likely be determined in the next two months.