Twins Add Three Players with MLB Experience on Minor-League Deals

Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

With the bases empty in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 2019 World Series, Daniel Hudson watched Houston Astros outfielder Michael Brantley swing through his 3-2 slider to give the Washington Nationals their first championship in the franchise’s 51-season history.

It was the culmination of a wild season for Hudson. The righty, who turned 32 during spring training, spent the first part of the 2019 season with the Toronto Blue Jays, working mostly as a setup guy who picked up a few saves from time to time. He allowed two earned runs in his first appearance of the season, and his ERA didn’t get under 4.00 until May 1. It didn’t stay under 4.00 until late May.

When Hudson was traded to the Nationals at the trade deadline, it didn’t generate too many headlines. Washington was going with the quantity over quality approach to bullpen repair, picking up Hudson, Roenis Elias and Hunter Strickland at the deadline. Earlier in the season, the team signed Jonny Venters, Dan Jennings, Michael Blazek, George Kontos and Fernando Rodney as free agents. They picked up Javy Guerra off waivers from the Blue Jays. They released offseason pickups Tony Sipp, Trevor Rosenthal and Vidal Nuno III.

They even tried to see what they could get from Henderson Alvarez III, whose injuries have prevented him from pitching regularly in the big leagues for five seasons.

But for whatever reason, it was Hudson who really stuck. It wasn’t that he’d never been a good reliever before, but his previous four seasons had resulted in a 4.39 ERA over 235.2 relief innings. Nevertheless, he posted a 1.44 ERA in 25 innings, took home a ring and will now get to have another chance at shopping his free-agent wares a year after the market utterly failed him.

Hudson wasn’t bound to have a robust market last offseason, but he had to settle for a minor-league deal. Not just that, but a minor-league deal signed on March 25 — three days after being released from a previous minor-league deal signed with the Los Angeles Angels that spanned a whopping 38 days.

The point here is that while Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg (justifiably) get all the free-agent headlines, the business that happens without fanfare isn’t completely without meaning. Sure, fans might say “CHAMPIONSHIP” or shout “WHO?” in a derogatory fashion toward the signing of these players, but they absolutely matter.

To be sure, this is a strange way to begin a story about the Twins signing three minor-league free agents who have previous MLB experience, but it is a good lesson for all of us — until the race is over, the dream remains possible.

Twins Triple-A director of communications Nate Rowan announced the following signings:

Blaine Hardy‘s deal had long been rumored by both local and other media, but was finalized recently and announced with Ryan Garton and Juan Graterol both joining the organization as well. All three signings will undoubtedly include invitations to spring training — something the Twins will announce later.

Here’s the lowdown on each:

Graterol, who turns 31 in February, is a thickly-built right-handed hitter with 129 MLB plate appearances and a slash line of just .218/.227/.266. He’s thrown out 32 percent of potential base stealers in his four MLB seasons — including a brief stint with the Twins in 2018 when he was replaced behind the plate for one pitch by a retiring Joe Mauer in the season finale — and 38 percent in his more than 500 career minor-league games behind the plate.

While Graterol falls short with the stick, he has graded out generally on the positive side when it comes to behind the plate. According to Baseball Prospectus, Graterol has only graded negatively in blocking runs once in his career at any level — minus-0.1 runs in the big leagues in 2018 — while his throwing and framing runs have been generally positive, with the exception of this past year in Triple-A. Framing can fluctuate year to year, but the overall idea is that for his career he’s been a pretty good framer, a good pitch blocker and fairly good at throwing opposing runners out.

Not bad for a “break-glass-in-case-of-emergency” option at Rochester, really. Plus, who doesn’t love the idea of Brusdar Graterol throwing to his kin — no relation, though — behind the plate?

Hardy is very familiar to Twins fans after the lefty — who turns 33 next March — spent the last six seasons with the Detroit Tigers. In fact, Hardy has faced the Twins 23 times, a mark exceeded only by the Cleveland Indians (30), Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals (29 each). Over that time frame, Hardy posted a 3.73 ERA in 289.2 innings with 7.1 K/9, 3.2 BB/9 and a groundball rate of 43.1 percent (remember, about 45 percent is average). To be fair, nothing really jumps off the page from those numbers.

Hardy was riddled for more than two homers per nine innings last year and his strikeout rates are the lowest they’ve ever been, but it’s always worth wondering if there’s something, anything in there the Twins might be seeing that the average fan isn’t.

Hardy doesn’t throw hard — 86-89 mph with his fastball — but he shows a lot of different looks. He threw his changeup a career-high 44.7 percent of the time last year, but his career rate is more along the lines of a quarter of the time. He’ll mix and match four-seamers and cutters and throw in the occasional curve, and all of that makes it worth looking under the hood to see if there’s anything in there.

The changeup — termed a Vulcan by Hardy in this Q&A with David Laurila of Fangraphs dated Aug. 14, 2018 — really jumps off the page with a swinging-strike rate of 18.5 percent, though that dipped to 16.6 percent last season. Still, it was the pitch he threw the most often last year and it resulted in a slash line of .165/.214/.286. Then we come to the fastball, and the four-seamer was absolutely slaughtered. Like, cover your eyes: .440/.514/1.040. His career line against on the four-seamer is an OPS of .853 — not great, but fairly typical for that pitch — so it’s worth wondering if perhaps he was tipping the pitch.

The curve was also an interesting pitch for Hardy in 2019, as it permitted an OPS of .581 but with a swinging-strike rate of just 5.0 percent. In other words, it seems like Hardy knew his changeup was his best pitch, but his entire repertoire was a work in progress and when he had to go to his fastball, it got crushed.

A lefty with a good changeup is something that can be worked with, but one might be curious if the Twins tweak his fastball usage, or perhaps how he uses it in relation to in, or out, of the strike zone. As a minor-league flyer, there are much, much worse options.

Garton, who turns 29 next month, might be the most interesting of the trio. The compactly-built righty — 5-foot-10, 190 lbs. — has thrown 64.1 MLB innings over the last three seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays and the Seattle Mariners. The numbers don’t jump off the page — 4.90 ERA/4.66 FIP, 7.0 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 42.9 percent GB rate — but again, it’s what’s under the hood that’s of more interest.

Garton doesn’t throw especially hard — 93.3 mph career average — but he relies heavily on a four-seam fastball hitters have batted .269/.329/.478 against. Like with Hardy, that’s not terribly atypical against a fastball.

But the curveball — easily the Chris Bosh of his trio of pitches usage-wise — is the one deserves a longer look. He’s only thrown it 190 times in his career — compared to 567 four-seam fastballs and 318 cutters — but opposing batters have hit just .167/.186/.214 against with an astonishing groundball rate of 82.8 percent. In his entire career, he’s allowed seven hits on the pitch — five singles and two doubles.

Here’s that curveball, poorly located but still inducing weak contact:

Here’s a much better execution of the curve, getting Franklin Gutierrez to ground into a 5-5-3 double play (Taylor Motter alert!):

Also, here’s Garton making a hilarious/dangerous fielding play with Double-A Montgomery:

It’s not as simple as just saying “throw more curveballs, kid” but there’s definitely something here.

Will any of these three be a key part of the Twins winning a World Championship in 2020? Maybe not, but plenty of Twins have carved out solid roles after signing as minor-league free agents, including most recently players like Casey Fien, Willians Astudillo, Chris Gimenez, Ryne Harper and Jared Burton.

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