It’s easy to mock the Minnesota Twins’ bullpen additions from last off-season. Now that we’re no longer standing in the smoldering crater, inhaling the toxic fumes left by the likes of Hansel Robles, Shaun Anderson, and the first six weeks of the Alexander Colomé experiment, the club is ready for a fresh start.
The team’s bullpen was a major asset as recently as 2020 (fourth in the AL in ERA, first in the AL in fWAR). It was fair to say that their blueprint of making small-to-medium acquisitions to complement their returning members made sense. They went out and acquired the trio above, along with a slew of minor league signings. But the result went about as poorly as we’ve ever seen.
The 2021 bullpen stumbled to a 4.39 ERA (fourth-worst in AL), and they gave up a whopping 92 home runs, trailing only the lowly Baltimore Orioles. So does that mean the front office should scrap their blueprint? Not necessarily. Teams like the Twins need to find value somewhere on their roster, and the bullpen has proved to be an easy route to do this when executed effectively.
With that said, here are three free agents who will be 35 or older at the beginning of the season who could help the Twins solidify their relief staff.
If Twins fans have learned anything about the front office’s spending habits since taking the helm in 2016, it’s that they love a good slider, and they tend to shy away from major commitments to relief pitchers. That should put Ottavino front and center as a reasonable target. He checks off both of those boxes. At 36 years old, coming off of two sub-par years in major markets, he should only command a one-year deal for a reasonable price.
For reference, Joakim Soria was 36 when he signed his 1-year, $3.5 million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and he was coming off an above-average campaign the year before. At an investment at that level, the Twins could try to harness the power of Ottavino’s frisbee-slider in the hopes of finding a new set-up complement.
Over the past three seasons, Ottavino has shown that he still can get guys out, especially right-handed hitters. Since the start of 2019, opposing righties have a minuscule Well-Hit average (exit velocity of 95 MPH and above) of .110, good for fourth-best among qualified relievers in MLB, according to Inside Edge. His fastball is nothing to shrug off, either. Last season, Baseball Savant had him in the 73rd percentile for fastball velocity, and he was in the 77th percentile for fastball spin rate. If he can continue to induce weak contact while cutting down on his walk rate (5.1 BB/9 in 2021), he could be a steal for the Minnesota bullpen.
One of the most intriguing mysteries surrounding the 2022 Twins is the leash they may put on members of the starting rotation. They have multiple vacancies on the starting staff and a handful of intriguing prospects who are still working on increasing their workload after missing time in 2020 and 2021. It’s hard to expect their projected group to lead the league in innings pitched, putting increased pressure on their bullpen to carry some of that load.
The lofty veteran right-hander is no stranger to eating innings. He has ranked seventh or higher on the leaderboard for innings pitched in four of the last five years. Last season he appeared in 77 games for the Oakland A’s, and nearly 20% of those appearances went multiple innings. If the Twins want to find a way to promote their young pitching prospects with a built-in workload limit, whether that’s pitches per game or innings per year, then someone like Petit could bridge the game to the big guns at the back end of the bullpen.
While his strikeout numbers cratered to a career-low in 2021 (4.27 K/9), he still had impeccable control (1.23 BB/9). That’s been a strength of his for the last three seasons, as he has the fourth-best walk rate (4%) since the start of 2018 among qualified relievers. Pair that with his ability to induce contact with his breaking pitches, where opponents have a Well-Hit average of just .059 since 2019, and it’s easy to see why Petit could be a major value play at 37 years old.
An old friend from the brief 2020 season, Clippard could occupy a similar role for the Twins in 2022. Sure, he’ll be 37 when the season begins, and he missed a couple of months last year due to injury. But don’t let recency bias fool you. That absence last season was virtually the first in Clippard’s 15-year career, and he returned to the field with strong success. His 3.20 ERA and 75.5% strand rate were rock solid, even if his strikeouts were down. But what’s most compelling about his game is his vast experience in the art of knowing how to get big outs by tunneling his pitches and keeping batters off-balance with his unique changeup/splitter combination.
That tunneling allows him to get outs with his fastball outside of the strike zone, where he has gotten 58% of his punchouts since 2019. Hitters chase that pitch because they have his changeup and splitter in the back of their minds. Usually, hitters only need to think about one of those off-speed offerings, but Clippard has the distinctive capability to use both in his repertoire.
While the changeup tends to fade away from left-handed hitters, the splitter will dive almost straight down. So when these pitches are coming from the same tunnel as his fastball (along with a seldom-used curveball), it becomes challenging for opponents to decide on how to swing. While lefties did start to catch up to him in 2021, if he can have a healthy, full off-season and spring ramp up, maybe he can return to his dominant ways.
No matter who the team brings on board to supplement the bullpen, the real impact in these signings is the value that they can receive. These free agents should cost a minimal investment and have the potential to solidify an exciting but chaotic group of returning hurlers. For a front office regime that has so far refused to invest big money and multi-year commitments to relievers, these older players should be realistic targets. Now we just have to wait for the lockout to end so that we can relish in a mad flurry of roster additions. For our sake, let’s hope it happens while we’re young.