It feels like the Minnesota Twins are a few good breaks on the injury front from having their own iteration of the infamous portal scene from Avengers: Endgame. Just as a hampered team is about to take on their toughest challenge, they are suddenly reunited with a group of returning characters that had long been out of action.
Now, the team that the Twins play in the first round of the playoffs may not be some big bad like Thanos. It’ll likely be one of the teams that are having great years, but are hardly the most-lethal opponent in the playoff bracket. Most likely, it will be the Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, or Toronto Blue Jays.
But the challenge isn’t the opposing team themselves, but rather the unrelenting anchor of being the team that has lost 18-straight playoff games. And if the Twins want to get that monkey off of their back once and for all, they’ll need some supplementary pieces to their team of protagonists. They need to assemble their A-team.
That best-case scenario of a roster has some key pieces in the bullpen returning to get big outs in medium and high-leverage situations. They won’t supplant closer Jhoan Duran as the main figure at the back end of their relief corps. However, they would surely refresh a set-up group that has included a resurgent Emilio Pagán and a version of Griffin Jax that has been in a tailspin since the All-Star break.
It can be said that this portal of returning relief pitchers was opened when Caleb Thielbar returned from a lengthy IL stint in August and Louie Varland was called up in a new relief role earlier this month. That’s an exciting arm from each side who should get plenty of prime opportunities to get key outs for the remainder of the season and into the playoffs.
And so far, their small sample of work since returning has been fairly promising. In 17 innings since coming off the IL, Thielbar has posted a sterling 2.12 ERA with an excellent 31.3% strikeout rate. He’s held opponents to a .150 batting average and just four walks. Varland has given up a pair of earned runs on solo home runs since making his relief debut last week, and he’s struck out 30.4 % of batters faced. Better yet, he’s working with a few new weapons — a fastball that has a little more firepower than it did when he was a starter and a sharper cutter that he uses as his finisher.
The club is still anticipating another reliever portal to open up and reunite a couple more arms when Chris Paddack and Brock Stewart are activated. If all goes reasonably well and according to plan, that could happen as early as late next week. It’s hard to say what each will bring to the table, but now would be the time to find out if they can hold their own in the big fight.
Paddack hasn’t seen action with the Major League club since May of 2022 after going under the knife for a second Tommy John surgery. But if he can come back in a low-leverage bullpen role, he could be an upgrade over someone like Dylan Floro, Brent Headrick, or Josh Winder. His fastball and changeup combo was stellar in his brief showcase with the Twins before succumbing to last year’s injury.
Brock Stewart was on his way to being the biggest surprise on the club before going on the IL in July with a minor forearm strain. His absence wasn’t supposed to be lengthy, but he’s been out of action for 10 weeks now. When healthy, he was as good as anyone in Minnesota’s bullpen, with a remarkable 0.70 ERA and some of the most unhittable stuff that the club has seen from a reliever, as evident by his 19.2% swinging-strike rate.
Stewart’s velocity was looking good in his last bullpen session, where he reportedly sat 97-98 MPH with his heater and came out feeling pretty good. The plan will be to monitor his recovery, make two appearances in a rehab stint and then possibly make his triumphant return to the big league club after that. And that would be a massive addition to the Twins, who can use every bullpen portal they can get their hand on right now.
Of course, the biggest reveal of all would be the return of their franchise-cornerstone superstar slugger, Byron Buxton. It would be as if manager Rocco Baldelli was looking at the club’s postseason demons right in the eye just before battle, and he hears the iconic line:
“On your left. . .”
And Buxton comes through a portal of his own while pumping his arm in his patented Buck Truck celebration. Of course, that will require Buxton to be healthy enough to contribute with his bat at the very least. The lineup needs some firepower from the right side of the plate, and Buxton might be their best shot at improving themselves on that front. Not to mention, it would be an absolute treat for fans to see.
So while the Twins play out the final few weeks of the regular season before locking into a heated playoff battle, they’ll surely be looking forward to their collection of reinforcements that can walk through those portals and help save the day.