Has Emilio Pagan Found His Role?

Photo Credit: Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Emilio Pagán arrived in what may be the strangest trade in Minnesota Twins history. Chris Paddack and Taylor Rogers headlined Minnesota’s swap with the San Diego Padres. Paddack is a hulking Texan right-handed pitcher who owned a 3.33 ERA as a rookie in 2019 and had thrown 108.1 innings in 2022. Rogers was coming off an All-Star appearance as Minnesota’s closer. San Diego tossed Pagán in as a sweetener; the Twins sent Brent Rooker out west.

“Ultimately, I feel this sets us up better for now,” Derek Falvey said at the time, “but also for the future.”

The Twins and the Padres sent the trade into the league 24 hours before Opening Day last year. Pagán had most of his possessions in Phoenix, where the Padres host Spring Training, and San Diego. Therefore, his wife had to gather their belongings, drive down to Arizona, then out to Minnesota. Pagán took a while to settle in. But he’s pitched better this season, owning a 1.42 ERA in his first five outings this year.

Pagán owned a 5.56 ERA in the first half of last season and a 3.56 ERA in the second. However, he had 1.378 walks and hits per inning pitched in the first half and a 1.352 WHIP in the second, meaning he was always living on the edge. Pagán’s issue was that if he threw eight great pitches, he’d toss the ninth middle-middle, and it would land 400 feet behind him. Remove the worst pitch he threw to each batter, and he looked like the 2019 version of himself who had a 2.31 ERA (190 ERA+) with the Tampa Bay Rays.

“His 2019 season was among probably the best in baseball out of the bullpen, among guys who pitched as much as he did [70 innings],” Falvey said a year ago. “We have some ideas on pitch mix and where he’s attacking, some things we think he can continue to improve upon. … We’re excited about his fit.”

Most pitchers would look great if they got one mulligan per batter. But the Twins borrow from the Rays, Oakland A’s, and Cleveland Guardians, among other teams, to create their winning formula. That had an idea of what they were going to do with him. Falvey used to work in Cleveland; Baldelli in Tampa. Pagán had his best years as a rookie with the Seattle Mariners and in Tampa. But he had a 4.35 ERA (96 ERA+) with the A’s and put up worse numbers in his two years with the Padres (4.75 ERA, 84 ERA+). They had work to do.

Pagán was a known commodity when the Twins traded for him. Minnesota’s bench coach, Jayce Tingler, was San Diego’s manager when Pagán played for the Padres. He had to have had a voice when the Twins were mulling over the trade. Managers can be particularly fickle with relievers because close wins and losses affect their job security. In 2021, the Padres had Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado terrorizing opposing pitchers and Joe Musgrove, Yu Darvish, and Blake Snell in the rotation. They won 79 games and fired Tingler. If he felt Pagán was at fault in any capacity, Pagán wouldn’t be in Minnesota right now.

Pagán didn’t take over for Rogers as Minnesota’s closer, but that shouldn’t have been the expectation. Paddack was the big get, but he’s only pitched five games in a Twins uniform. The Padres would never trade a starter like Paddack and [italics] Rogers’ replacement. Pagán has settled in as a reliable lower-leverage reliever. Perhaps that’s all he’ll be this year, but that’s an improvement over last season and a vital role. Minnesota has championship expectations. Or at least they believe they can win a playoff game.

Regardless, there can’t be a weak link in the bullpen. Jhoan Duran is the closer, and Jorge López looks like his All-Star self. Griffin Jax and Caleb Thielbar have improved after going to Driveline over the summer. Jorge Alcala has some upside. There were a lot of people who wanted the Twins to use one of the lower-leverage roles to break in a guy like Jovani Moran, though. Why have Pagán, 32, occupying one of those spots when they could work in a prospect?

Now we’re kinda seeing why. Moran, 26, could be a great pitcher one day, but he’s all over the place. Moran pitched 40.2 innings last year and had a 2.21 ERA (175 ERA+). But he owns a 7.71 ERA this year after two bad outings. Moran pitched 4.2 scoreless innings in stints against the Miami Marlins, Chicago White Sox, and the New York Yankees. However, he gave up two runs against the Houston Astros, and the three runs he gave up against the Boston Red Sox cost them that game. The Twins should keep working with Moran. However, they’ve given themselves the option to send him down because they have Pagán, a veteran, to fill in for him.

The Paddack-Rogers swap is becoming an all-time weird trade. Paddack has only pitched five games for the Twins; Rogers had a 4.35 ERA in San Diego. The Padres traded Rogers to the Milwaukee Brewers, where his ERA inflated to 5.48. The San Francisco Giants gave him a three-year, $33 million contract in the offseason; Rogers has a 15.75 ERA this year. Rooker only played in two games with the Padres before they traded him to the Kansas City Royals. He was claimed off waivers by Oakland in the offseason and is hitting .324/.395/.676 with four homers. Pagán has a sub-2.00 ERA after driving fans mad last season. None of it makes sense, but all of it seems fitting for a transaction that came together 24 hours before Opening Day last year.

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