The Minnesota Twins could really use some reinforcements in their bullpen. In fact, it’s safe to say they need it if they hope to remain on top of the AL Central through the end of the season. They need it like I need new tires on my car. And like the Twins, I keep putting off paying a premium to address the issue.
The Falvey-led front office is in familiar territory this year. Their team is pacing the division with a few soft spots in their group of relief pitchers. In 2019, they desperately needed some help at the back end of their bullpen. The front office responded by acquiring veterans Sergio Romo and Sam Dyson at the trade deadline, and the Twins eventually claimed the division title.
In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, they decided that sacrificing enticing assets didn’t make sense in such a crazy year. Also, the need was nowhere near as high.
Those decisions were met with mixed results. However, one strategy the front office employed ended up paying dividends. By moving high-end pitching prospects into relief roles, they were able to pressure-cook their strengths while limiting their vulnerabilities. Now, it might be time to make a similar call on rookie starter Josh Winder.
In three recent instances, the front office made this type of move to varying degrees of success. First, Brusdar Graterol made his debut as a flame-throwing reliever in 2019. The Twins were on the home stretch of the regular season that year, and they decided their need for bullpen help was more urgent than his continued development as a starting pitcher. Graterol, 20, made 10 appearances out of the big league bullpen, and he showed flashes of the raw talent that put him on top-100 prospect lists heading into the year.
He had a 4.66 ERA, but under the hood, it was clear that he had the making of an effective relief ace (3.09 xERA, 9.3 K/9, 1.9 BB/9). While it would have been fun to see how effective he could’ve been if they had continued to develop him as a starting pitcher, it’s now clear that the Twins made the right call. Graterol is now a staple in the relief core for the Los Angeles Dodgers. While his strikeouts are down, he still manages to get key outs with a worm-killing 60.7% ground ball rate.
Jorge Alcala is the next example of a high-end pitching prospect getting a chance as a reliever. Though he’s still with the Twins, he’s been hurt for much of the season with elbow tightness. When Alcala first got the call to the big leagues, many were excited to see his 60-grade fastball, especially knowing that he could really let it fly in shorter outings than a traditional start. He made just two appearances at the end of 2019, but it was all systems go in 2020. Alcala pitched in 16 of the 60 regular-season games and flourished with a 2.63 ERA with a 27:8 strikeout to walk ratio.
He continued to throw hard while developing a much-improved slider and climbed Rocco Baldelli‘s fabled ladder of trust. And while last year’s club saw mostly bad results in 2021, Alcala continued to show why his name is written in pen on the depth chart. He overcame a mediocre first half of the season (4.67 ERA, .729 OPS-against) and had an excellent final 10 weeks that was much closer to expectations (2.88 ERA, .523 OPS-against). His imminent return to this season’s Twins club could be one of the biggest additions they make.
The final example of this type of roster decision comes in the form of current relief ace, Jhoan Duran. After pitching just 16 innings last year and missing professional innings completely in 2020, the Twins decided that this season would be the ideal time to see what he could bring in relief. And things couldn’t be going better. He has a 1.95 ERA, with 11.7 K/9 and just 1.5 BB/9 in 37 innings. He has a 39% chase percentage (7th-best in baseball), a 70% strike rate (4th-best), and he hasn’t allowed a home run in his last 24.1 innings pitched. He’s been a revelation, and it’s impossible to think that the Twins would be in first place without his heat coming out of the bullpen doors 3-4 times a week.
Now, these moves don’t come without challenges, especially for guys who lean heavily on fastball usage. We’ve seen Alcala miss significant time with elbow soreness, perhaps due in part to a change in routine. The club has also been very transparent about its caution with Duran. He has struggled with elbow issues, as well. That’ll undoubtedly be a consideration with a potential shift for Winder, who has a history of shoulder soreness.
But that could even be a contributing rationale for a move to the bullpen. The Twins are certainly monitoring Winder’s workload. His previous watermark for innings pitched is just 125.2 back in 2019, and he hasn’t eclipsed even 70 innings in a year since then.
Clearly, Winder is ready for an extended look in the big leagues, whether it’s in the rotation or out of the bullpen. The club would be wise to try him in relief, especially if they aren’t keen on trading for a notable upgrade before the Aug. 2nd deadline. Otherwise, it’s like they’re trying to pump air into worn-out tires.