With a month left to play in the regular season, the Minnesota Twins find themselves with more questions than answers. Notably, one of the biggest head-scratchers is something that seemingly reemerges every season.
Twins fans repeat it so often that it could be the de facto fanbase family credo.
“So, what are they going to do with the bullpen?”
They asked it last year.
They asked it the year before.
And they’ll ask it next year.
Sometimes it’s asked even when the relief corps impresses, as was the case after last year when the Twins’ bullpen ranked sixth in ERA (3.69) and fifth in strikeouts per inning (10.36).
But more often than not, it’s been a legitimate concern in recent years. That’s definitely the case this season, as the relief staff has a combined 4.75 ERA and 0.8 fWAR, fifth-worst in both regards. The team will have some money to spend if they go looking for solutions on the free-agent market this winter.
However, with a few mainstays, some solid bets, and a handful of auditioning pieces mixed in, the Twins’ current stock of relief pitchers could have some answers of their own.
Rogers is the most exciting of the three, as he was selected as an American League All-Star less than two months ago. He has a 3.25 ERA on the year and a 7:4 strikeout to walk ratio (fourth in baseball among qualified relievers). He is a realistic trade candidate depending on the market, but that seems foggy at best with so much uncertainty surrounding the finger injury that currently has him on the shelf. Still, it seems likely that he returns to his spot at the back end of the Twins’ bullpen next year.
Thielbar has been one of the unsung heroes of the past two seasons. He has a combined 3.30 ERA in that time while averaging more than a strikeout per inning (10.9 K/9). He also has a 1.09 ERA in close and late situations (second-best among qualified relievers). For someone to be that locked in and just entering his first year of arbitration eligibility, it would be shocking if he wasn’t back with the club next year.
This season, Duffey has lost a tick on his fastball, but he’s still effective as he enters a contract year. He has a 3.61 ERA and shouldn’t break the bank in his last trip to arbitration, making him relatively sure to land a spot. However, his strikeouts are down, and his walk rate is up, so the Twins probably don’t want him to be the marquee name of the bunch.
The Solid Bets
For Alcala, the only way that he wouldn’t be relied upon right out of the gate next year is if somebody were to outperform him in the spring. He’s as close as it gets to being a lock for next season, but definitely not in the class with the aforementioned three. A spot should theoretically be his to lose, especially given his awesome raw stuff. This year, opponents have a chase percentage of 35%, good for 10th in baseball, according to Inside Edge. If he can find a way to keep the ball in the park (1.91 HR/9), he’ll certainly be a fixture in the bullpen for years to come.
As far as Gant is concerned, his best fit would be in the bullpen, but he could also find himself in the starting rotation, depending on how things shake out. The Twins could also decide to non-tender him if the price is too steep for the quality that he displays in the final month of this season.
A combination of a more experienced veteran, a young starter, and a thrilling prospect could fill in the remaining holes depending on the need. Juan Minaya and Griffin Jax have each shown flashes of reliability this season, but there’s still some questions about whether they’d be ready for a full season of work in an MLB bullpen. Jovani Moran has proven himself at the upper levels of the minor leagues but needs to rein in his control to make an impact at the big-league level.
Minaya, in particular, has been especially effective in August. In the last month, he has a 1.38 ERA and has struck out 47% of the batters faced with men in scoring position (second-highest in baseball in that span). Like Thielbar, he’s showing he can lock in when it’s needed most.
Jax is currently filling a hole in the starting rotation, but the Twins could try to look at him in a long-relief role. This season has shown how valuable a swingman can be, both in terms of spot starting if one of the starters goes down and eating innings if the game gets out of hand early.
Moran is an exciting southpaw that has dazzled with a 2.39 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A this year. He also has a ludicrous 14.77 K/9, giving him future closer potential. Entering his age-25 season next year, the Twins could shoot their shot by allowing him to carry that success over to Target Field in 2022, or even sooner (*insert eyeball emoji*).
No matter where the answers come from, these relievers will be put under a microscope this month and next year. For a front office that has been touted for its ability to identify undervalued pitchers, they made some questionable decisions that led to an early collapse.
Can this group solidify themselves as a solution to one area of concern?
If the Twins are going to return to contention in 2022, they will need far more certainty from their bullpen. Fortunately, they have some internal candidates.