One of the most glaring holes on the 2022 Minnesota Twins roster ended up being in a role that usually gets the least amount of love on an off-season shopping list. The club was clearly lacking a rubber-armed relief pitcher who could pitch multiple innings in an outing.
While Jhoan Duran, Griffin Jax, and Caleb Thielbar had some commendable campaigns, their bullpen faced constant limitations. That was due to overuse, a system-wide hesitancy to pitch guys on back-to-back days, and the absence of someone who could effectively fill that innings-eater role. These factors exacerbated the teams’ deficiencies, not only in the bullpen but elsewhere.
A very understandable reason for the absence of a rubber arm could be that Minnesota’s decision-makers thought Duran could be that guy. He came up as a starter and only transitioned to a relief role in the spring. Therefore, he would theoretically be accustomed to the ups and downs of taking on multiple innings in an outing. But when he turned out to be the best weapon at their disposal and one of the best arms in the league, they moved him to higher-leverage opportunities closer to the end of the game.
If this was the case, the mistake wasn’t to transition Duran to a set-up man or closer. However, leaving his former role vacant from then on was flawed. They tried to slot Jharel Cotton in there, but can you really say you had confidence in a guy you outrighted off the roster three times in-season?
The Twins will need a better plan for sopping up innings in 2023. Thankfully, there will be many options internally and externally that could feasibly fill this role.
A Starter Gets Bumped
The Twins currently have a plethora of starting pitchers that can fill their Opening Day rotation. But after accounting for the locks to earn a spot (Sonny Gray, Joe Ryan, and Tyler Mahle), there is a group who will probably have to earn one of the two remaining spots in spring training. That includes Kenta Maeda, Bailey Ober, Josh Winder, Simeon Woods Richardson, and Louie Varland.
Maeda, Ober, and Winder have had significant injury slowdowns in recent years. This could hypothetically make them prime candidates for a relief role where they can be conservative with an innings limit. Maeda even has a good amount of experience coming out of the bullpen for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the past. However, the team held off on his return to game action in September because they wanted to keep him on a recovery schedule meant for a starter. It’s hard to imagine the team making that call only to turn around and throw him into the bullpen.
However, Ober and Winder could be quite effective in a multi-inning relief role. Of course, they both have shown success as starting pitchers, but neither has been able to stay healthy enough with that workload.
Ober was rock-solid in 11 starts this year, pitching 56 innings of 3.21 ERA ball. He was elite when it came to walk percentage (91st percentile), chase rate (92nd), and extension (95th). If given the proper tools and tutelage, he could be a force in relief thanks to his big frame and effective fastball. And if that heater gets a few more ticks of velocity, as is usually the case when transitioning to a reliever, he could be downright scary.
The jury is still out on Winder. He doesn’t have as good of a track record as Ober, but he earned a spot on the Futures Game roster in 2021 thanks to a great first half at Double-A. If Winder can rediscover some of that high-strikeout stuff that he showed in Wichita that year (10.7 K/9), he could also be a weapon.
Woods Richardson and Varland will likely start the year in the Triple-A rotation. They are young enough and showed a ton of promise as starters this year. Chances are the team will need someone to fill in as a spot starter eventually. It would be wise to have that fill-in be a capable starter rather than someone shuffling back and forth between roles. However, many evaluators peg these two as probable relievers in the future, so the Twins could opt to start that transition now rather than wait and see. Still, they seem like long shots to be multi-inning relievers in the big leagues at the onset of the season.
It’s hard to nail down anyone from this year’s free agent pool as slam-dunk candidates for multi-inning relief duty. One name that makes a ton of sense would be Ryan Yarbrough, who has been a main player in the Tampa Bay Rays opener strategy since its inception in 2018. This year, he made 20 appearances (9 starts) and completed two or more innings in all but two of those instances. His surface numbers weren’t spectacular (4.50 ERA, 1.38 WHIP), but he has shown that he has the arm to take on bigger workloads for a ‘pen arm.
Other intriguing candidates on the free-agent reliever market include Alex Reyes, Wily Peralta, and Jeff Hoffman. All three have shown varied success in recent years, and each has experience going two or more innings multiple times per week in the past. If the Twins want to get creative, they could look at a few veteran starting pitchers that are currently free agents and try to transition them to a relief role. This category includes notable players such as Michael Lorenzen, Erick Fedde, and Matthew Boyd.