The Twins Have Their Work Cut Out For Them With Dylan Bundy

Photo Credit: Tommy Gilligan (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Twins got a last-second shot off before the proverbial lockout-buzzer went off on Wednesday night, inking starting pitcher Dylan Bundy to a one-year contract with a club option for 2023. It’s a move that feeds the horde of pitching-hungry fans but hardly satisfies them.

A former top-prospect and third overall pick by the Baltimore Orioles, Bundy represents a quality contract more than an actual improvement to a depleted starting staff. A 1-year, $4 million guarantee is reasonable in theory. And if the Twins catch lightning in a bottle, they have an $11 million option for the 2023 season.

The move is reminiscent of last year’s Matt Shoemaker signing. It helps to establish a floor in the rotation. The team gets a great value on an under-appreciated veteran if it works. If it blows up in their face, then they cut bait after the year (or even sooner).

The problem is that it’s hard to sell a floor to a fan base when you’ve buried them six feet underground for the last six months.

On its own, the signing is a relatively harmless and suitable move for a last-place team to make. But do the Twins want to be seen as a last-place team making last-place moves? Or would they rather be seen as a club whose competitive window was merely blocked last year rather than completely shut?

If Bundy is going to be a contributor on a competitive team, then the Twins have their work cut out for them.

Though he has yet to live up to his billing as a top prospect, the 29-year-old right-hander has shown that he can handle a back-end spot in the rotation. Bundy topped 160 innings pitched in a season three times from 2017-19, and he would have been on pace to do so again in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. That season was the best of Bundy’s career. He made 11 starts and had a 3.29 ERA (1.06 WHIP) and a career-high 9.67 K/9.

Bundy was especially effective against right-handed hitters, who could only muster a .519 OPS against him (fourth-best in MLB according to Inside Edge). He was also exceptional at limiting damage when going through the order for the third time. He held opponents had a minuscule .117 well-hit average against him the third time through, third-best in MLB (league average is .196).

But he wasn’t able to carry that over into 2021. Last season, Bundy stumbled to a 6.78 ERA before being relegated to relief duties. His luck didn’t get much better in the bullpen, and a shoulder injury ended his season five weeks early. Ultimately, he finished the year with a brutal 6.06 ERA (1.36 WHIP) in only 90 innings of work.

What’s puzzling about the sudden regression is that his strengths from 2020 ended up being fatal weaknesses in 2021. Hitters demolished him when he got to the third time in the order, batting .389 with a 1.128 OPS against him (fourth-worst in MLB). His opponents stopped swinging at his breaking pitches (34.2 swing%, worst in MLB), which was terrible news for a guy who threw them 34% of the time.

The Twins are probably hoping to find something in his fastball, which had an average spin rate of 2,433 RPM, putting him in the 91st percentile in all of baseball. Bundy got great results when he could locate that pitch away, as opponents hit a mere .113 when he was able to do that. Minnesota hopes he can replicate that success with the heater while finally discovering something in one of his breaking pitches. However, that’s nothing but a major question mark at this point and presents the rarely-mentioned downside of low-stakes projects in a starting rotation. It always seems like these guys get the longest leashes on teams with few other options.

And what exactly is the upside?

Say Bundy figures things out early on; do we trust him to sustain that success throughout a full season and beyond?

He pitched 161.2 innings in 2019, then 65.2 in 2020 (not his fault as the season was only 60 games). But he only pitched 90.2 last year before succumbing to shoulder issues. Of course, workload among starters is an issue league-wide, but it’s particularly raw for a team with only three (three) remotely-reliable starting pitchers on their depth chart.

Bundy’s, and ultimately the Twins’ success, will have to be hard-fought and developed creatively. Maybe they can unlock something that the Los Angeles Angels and Baltimore Orioles couldn’t discover. Until then, it’s like the club is trying to sell fans a floor while the house is missing a roof and two walls.

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