Against All Odds, Minnesota Twins Reliever Ryne Harper has Arrived

Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

They’ll say spring training stats don’t matter. They’re not necessarily wrong. They’re a small sample size against players ranging from big-league regulars to guys pulled off a back field wearing No. 99 and making memories they’ll tell their grandkids about one day.

At the outset of spring training, it looked like the Minnesota Twins might end up sending an erstwhile big-league caliber reliever to the minors to finalize their Opening Day roster, with the idea of adding a non-roster player seeming like a virtual impossibility.

That’s a bullpen eight or nine deep — most units feature seven or eight pitchers — and while it won’t make anyone forget about the present-day New York Yankees, it’s the classic battle of juggling a couple of bounce-back candidates, getting the most out of intriguing guys who are out of options and hoping guys who took a step forward the previous year don’t show any sort of regression.

In short, it’s a full house without much room for help.

Even so, the Twins brought some very intriguing help in as non-roster invitees this spring. Mike Morin is a Minnesota-born righty with a disappearing changeup and a short track record of success with the Angels. Tim Collins is a slight lefty who is working his way back from catastrophic arm issues. Preston Guilmet hasn’t done much in the big leagues, but is just funky enough to make you think it could work.

And then there’s Ryne Harper. The righty, who turned 30 on Wednesday, got the best birthday present of all — a spot on the club’s 40- and 25-man rosters.

Heck, speaking of big numbers — Harper himself opened the spring with the No. 70.

Feb 22, 2019; Lee County, FL, USA; Minnesota Twins pitcher Ryne Harper (70) poses for a photo on photo day at Hammond Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Harper was a 37th-round pick in the 2011 draft out of Austin Peay University. The Governors — who have a humorous chant of “Let’s go Peay!” — have produced exactly six big leaguers in school history, five of which who accumulated a positive bWAR:

To say Harper keeps a fairly low profile is an understatement. When you Google his name for his Baseball Cube page, a 25-year-old Indy leaguer who posted a 7.88 ERA in 2017 with Garden City comes up first. The same player who posted a 34.71 ERA in his senior season at Penn State (nine earned runs in two innings).

His name? Ryan Harper.

Not even the right guy.

Speaking of senior seasons, Harper had one at Austin Peay. What’s unusual about that is that most players who end up playing in the big leagues are drafted as high schoolers or underclassmen in college. Seniors — like Brian Dozier at Southern Miss — have no leverage when they’re selected, and end up taking whatever teams are willing to offer them to sign because they, simply put, can’t go back to school.

Add to that the fact that Harper was taken in the 37th round, and his bonus was, how should we put it, scant.

“A thousand bucks and a plane ticket,” Harper said with a laugh from the Twins dugout prior to Thursday’s season opener at Target Field. That was his signing bonus when the Atlanta Braves selected him with pick No. 1,136 of the 2011 draft.

Harper didn’t exactly put up staggering numbers at Austin Peay, either. Only once in four years did he post an ERA under 4.50. For the four-year period, Harper had a 4.84 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, 20 wild pitches and allowed 10.2 hits per nine innings.

It’s not uncommon for teams to see potential in guys separate from their college numbers and draft them with a small tweak or two in mind, so as a result, it’s not terribly surprising that the Atlanta Braves took a late-round flyer on Harper even though he struggled a bit in the Ohio Valley Conference — not exactly a baseball hotbed.

Harper spent his requisite five years in the Braves system with ample success but zero innings above Double-A, and then moved on to Seattle for the 2016 season.

So when did Harper start thinking about possibly playing in the big leagues?

“Obviously everyone as a kid wants to grow up and played baseball as long as they can, and play in the major leagues,” Harper said. “But I never really thought about it seriously as a thing like ‘Oh man, this could actually happen.’

“Even when I got drafted, I thought I’d go play and see what it’s all about, and have fun. The first year was a success, and I was like ‘OK, I’ll just keep going with this thing until someone tells me not to.’ Eight years later, here I am — still doing it.”

Before his first year in Seattle, Harper braved the waters of playing winter ball — an experience he thoroughly enjoyed.

“I’ve done it twice — Mexico once, Venezuela once. I like it a lot,” Harper said. “It’s a different culture in those places obviously. But they love their baseball and there’s a ton of great talent there. But I don’t speak any Spanish, unfortunately. It’s not really for me there. It’s a good opportunity to go play and get seen by people. All the guys have been great everywhere I’ve played.”

His Baseball Reference page bears no proof, but Harper’s time in Seattle did include a trip to the big leagues in 2017 — just no playing time.

May 28, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Seattle Mariners pitcher Ryne Harper tosses a ball back to a fan after signing it prior to a game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

“I was active and didn’t play,” Harper said. “I loved my time in Seattle. They were great to me. They trusted me, gave me an opportunity and called me up for three days. I was hoping I’d get back up, but it just didn’t work out.

“Our starter was coming off the DL. I went up for a starter who was sent down, and then I was sent down when the other guy came off.”

Harper signed a minor-league deal with the Twins prior to the 2018 season, and started the year in Chattanooga — his sixth year of playing Double-A ball in some form or fashion.

It can be hard to keep the faith, especially as a 29-year-old reliever in Double-A, but to his credit, Harper did just that.

“Well, as much of a grind as baseball is, you’ve got to love the game,” Harper said. “It’s fun. I was going out there, having success and thought I deserved an opportunity. I felt I was good enough to play at the highest level and compete with the best in the game. So I just kept doing it.

“There’s a lot of guys out there who are great out there playing baseball and never get that opportunity. That’s what kind of stinks about it. You kind of just have to persevere and stay through it and grind out the tough stuff.”

Harper was terrific for the Lookouts — 2.54 ERA in 39 innings with a 51-4 K/UIBB rate — and got a promotion to Rochester in late July. Harper had briefly played with the Red Wings early in the season with mixed results: 9.45 ERA in 6.2 innings but 12 strikeouts and just two walks.

Harper’s second look with the Red Wings was much better, as he posted a 3.72 ERA, .607 OPS against and a 23-3 K/BB ratio in 19.1 innings.

It didn’t result in a call-up, however, and Harper was again a minor-league free agent.

He re-signed with the Twins. Why?

“Well I was really comfortable with the organization,” Harper noted. “I really liked the staff and the front office people, and the relationship I developed with the players I played with last year. It just seemed like a good opportunity.

“The fact that they reached out to me during the grace period before I officially became a free agent showed they wanted me back, and that meant a lot. I was grateful to get a camp invite, and that pretty much sealed the deal for me. It was nice to know I meant that much to them, and they were that interested.”

“It was definitely the most memorable birthday I’ve ever had. …What an unbelievable present. It was great.”

That camp invite led to 11 innings without an earned run, and ultimately a new, better plane ticket — one to Minneapolis.

So how’d he find out?

“I was sitting in the clubhouse (on Tuesday) just kind of waiting around because I wasn’t sure if I needed to pack or what because the team was leaving the next day,” he said. “They came up to me after the game. Usually during the games at camp, you get to leave when you’re done, but I was like I can’t leave, I have to find out something. But they came up and grabbed me after the game and called me into the office, and Rocco told me, ‘Congratulations, you made the club.’

“Rocco’s just been awesome the whole time. He’s a great manager. He’s got our backs and he’s super nice. He definitely cares about us. I’ve only known him for a very short period of time, but I can tell that. He was in there, Wes (Johnson) was in there, so was Shelty (bench coach Derek Shelton).

“I was just speechless and smiling.”

So about that 30th birthday present. How’d he celebrate?

With a meal from the restaurant at the hotel he’s staying at, he told team broadcaster Kris Atteberry.

“It was definitely the most memorable birthday I’ve ever had,” Harper said. “What an unbelievable present. It was great.”

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