The Twins Have To Use Their Bullpen Cheat Code On the Toughest Levels

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Twins have a cheat code in their bullpen that they refuse to use in the game’s toughest levels.

Jhoan Durán’s fastball has gotten a ton of publicity recently, as have the many struggles of Minnesota’s bullpen. Manager Rocco Baldelli has tried a few different routes to find some stability in a shaky relief corps. But they almost haven’t changed Durán’s usage in these endeavors. It’s common for a club to designate their most-effective reliever as the team’s closer. Still, it’s hard to justify doing that with Durán when they’re often left waiting for a lead in the ninth inning. Instead, they should pounce to put the spreading fire out.

That’s what’s been happening all too often with the Twins this year. A streaky, inconsistent and often punchless offensive core leaves the pitching staff with little room for error. Therefore, the bullpen routinely has to scramble to get the remaining outs before the opponent regains HP. Meanwhile, Duran awaits an opportunity that gets squandered before he can throw a warm-up pitch.

Of course, there’s no easy solution to this problem. If Durán enters games earlier, then who comes in to slam the door after him? Bullpen management is a fickle endeavor, and Minnesota’s efforts to combat their propensity for coughing up small leads have left the team with few options. So here’s my plea: The Twins would maximize Duran’s impact by coming in when the team needs to put out a fire, even if it means somebody else gets called upon for a hypothetical save.

Durán is the only member of the current relief corps that possesses nearly-untouchable raw stuff. Others can find a way to wiggle out of jams (theoretically), but he’s the guy you want on the mound when even a sac fly can tie the game or put the opponent ahead. Take the San Francisco Giants series earlier this week. There was a point in the second game where the Twins were clinging to a 3-0 lead in the sixth inning, and the Giants had the bases loaded with no outs. That’s the type of situation that can turn the team’s fortunes in a hurry, and that’s exactly what happened.

The bridge to the closer was hanging by a thread, and the weight of the game caused it to snap before Minnesota could get close enough to safely jump to the other side. Jovani Moran and Brock Stewart each managed to walk in a run before the Twins got the inning’s third out. Then in the very next frame, Jorge López came in, tasked with mowing down the meat of the lineup. Instead, he gave up a leadoff double, a groundout to third, and then a go-ahead home run to cleanup hitter Michael Conforto.

And just like that, the Twins put their gun down with the lone silver bullet waiting in the chamber. It would have made far more sense to have Durán either come in and put out that bases-loaded fire in the sixth, or take care of the meatiest part of San Francisco’s lineup in the seventh. Instead, it seems like Minnesota decided they’re going to follow the conventional wisdom that as a standout reliever climbs the trust tree, they get used far less often.

And for what? So that Durán could get a save? This isn’t fantasy baseball where arbitrary counting stats have actual worth. There are opportunities to get outs, or to allow opponents to reach and/or score. It’s felt like these losses stem from key opportunities that are doused in gasoline. But instead of bringing in the guy with a fire hose, they call upon the kid who found a lighter on the playground.

Durán has given every reason to believe he could put out even the most dangerous fires. He just threw the hardest pitch of the year at 104.6 MPH, he’s only allowed two hits all year on his splinker, and he drops in a curveball that locks up opposing hitters with the best of them. Durán is elite when it comes to fastball velocity (100th percentile), expected batting average (99th percentile) and whiff rate (95th percentile). If the club needs someone to walk a tightrope during a scoring threat from the opposition, he’s the prototype for what any manager would want. Durán is to relief pitching as “Rosebud” was to The Sims, or “LT-LT-RB-LT-Left-Down-Right-Up-Left-Down-Right-Up” was to Grand Theft Auto III. He’s a cheat code in every sense of the word.

But just like in that Giants series, Durán doesn’t get those high-leverage, game-altering opportunities. He waits for a save situation, or for a blowout so that he can “get some work in” since he went unused in the games prior.

It’s been a waste of a major asset in what has been one Minnesota’s greatest downfalls thus far in 2023. And if the team doesn’t start using the cheat code that they’ve been blessed with, pretty soon they won’t have a game worth playing.

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