Many players are coming back from injuries, and physical rehabilitation was a big talking point at the beginning of Spring Training for the Minnesota Twins. Byron Buxton, Alex Kirilloff, and Kenta Maeda were the focus of the conversation. But Jorge Polanco, Royce Lewis, and Tyler Mahle were also in that discussion.
On top of losing games at the end of last season, the Twins couldn’t see the development of some of their top prospects because of injuries. However, Jorge Alcala’s injury got buried among all the players who went down. The 27-year-old reliever suffered an injury to his throwing elbow only five games into the 2022 season and missed the remainder of last year.
The Twins received Alcala when they traded Ryan Pressly to the Houston Astros in 2018. Alcala is known for his wicked velocity and horizontal movement from his pitches that generate swings and misses. The righty has four pitches but throws the slider and fastball 75 percent of the time. Alcala’s fastball has previously maxed out at around 97 MPH and his slider at 89.8 MPH in 2021. In addition to his heater and slider, he’s also mixing in a sinker and a changeup.
The right-hander reliever made his debut in 2019, appearing in two games for the Twins. In the lockout-shortened 2020 season, he appeared in 24 innings with a 2.63 ERA. During a full 162-game season in 2021, Alcala doubled his innings to 59.2 but owned a 3.92 ERA.
Alcala returned to Ft. Myers healthy and is poised to come to his full form in 2023. After a slow start to Spring Training, he has ramped up and looks ready to take the next step this year. If that hope manifests, it would be a huge boon for Minnesota’s bullpen.
Minnesota’s bullpen ranked 15th in baseball with a 3.84 bullpen ERA last year. Outside of flamethrower Johan Duran’s incredible rookie season, Griffin Jax, and Caleb Thielbar, there is plenty of uncertainty with the team’s relievers. However, the Twins didn’t do much to help the bullpen this year. Outside of re-signing Emilio Pagan, the team is relying heavily on internal development taking their relief core to the next level. Neglecting to make major-league additions to the bullpen may come back to bite the Twins. However, there certainly is enough talent inside the organization with guys like Alcala to understand their decision.
Duran and Jorge Lopez got the nod last season in the late-inning high-leverage roles. The Twins don’t seem to have a traditional two setup men followed by a closer structure at the end of the bullpen for next year. Instead, there seem to be two tiers: high-leverage arms and mop-up guys. Duran, Jax, and Thielbar round out that high-leverage field. In terms of impact and raw ability, nobody outside of Duran has the ability that Alcala brings to the Twins.
Win Probability Added is one of the more impactful ways to judge a reliever’s impact, especially in high-leverage situations. Alcala recorded a -0.25 WPA in 2021 and has a 0.36 career WPA. Those numbers don’t indicate Alcala will get many close late-game opportunities early this season. But at some point, the team will try and lean on him.
Duran’s 4.65 WPA last season already makes him one of the biggest bullpen weapons in baseball. Jax and Thielbar also provide high-leverage reliability. However, an in-control Alcala can bring impact closer to Duran compared to the other two high-leverage arms. That could bring a middle-of-the-pack bullpen last season into an above-average one. Alcala improving the bullpen with an already-improved pitching staff makes the Twins a more dangerous team than the arms they rolled out in the final months of last season.
The big question mark for Alcala this season will be if he can stay healthy. An ankle injury in 2020 and a triceps issue in 2021 limited him. Still, he didn’t miss much time during those seasons. Coming back from an elbow injury on his throwing arm is going to be a concern early in the season for Alcala. The Twins will likely slowly ramp up his workload to start this year before working into more consistent high-leverage situations.
If he proves he’s healthy, then the next step is seeing his ability be shown more consistently. His injury last season prevented him from getting much-needed developmental innings. It also means there was less time for the team to evaluate whether he can be a core piece of the bullpen. Alcala showed flashes of his potential, but he hasn’t over a whole season.
Alcala has only pitched in 87.2 career innings. It’s too small of a sample size to definitively say what his role will be in the Twins bullpen. Alcala needs to tighten up on allowing hard contact, giving up career-highs of 9.2 barrel percentage and 37.3 percent hard-hit percentage. It led to a 1.51 HR/9 in 2021, which isn’t ideal. Compare that to Pagan’s 1.71 HR/9 last season, which caused some well-documented issues from the Twins in 2022. However, he has the makeup and small but promising sample size to allow the Twins to make the investment in him. Alcala can at least receive the opportunity to get a high-leverage role in the bullpen.
Jorge Alcala is putting himself in position to have a career season in 2023 and establish himself as a key component of the Twins bullpen for years to come. Not only that, but Alcala also has the ability to take Minnesota’s bullpen to another level giving help to Duran, Thielbar, and the other high-leverage arms. If he can stay healthy and keep the baseball in the yard, Alcala can create a lot of value for himself.