The Twins Must Use September To Get the Bullpen Right

Photo Credit: Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

Emilio Pagán brings a poker mentality to the mound. He’ll raise before the flop if he likes his cards. He reads his opponent’s tendencies. Occasionally, Pagán will bluff when he doesn’t have his best stuff. Last year, he felt he often got beat on the river. He’d give up a home run that wouldn’t count in 20 other ballparks. Perhaps an umpire had a tight strike zone late in the game, or an opponent put a charge into one of his better offerings.

Those aren’t complaints. Pagán doesn’t want MLB to implement a challenge system; he believes in the game’s human element. He also acknowledges that he’s made poor pitches in crucial situations. Sometimes, the opposing batter just beats him. Regardless, Pagán feels that if he has his best stuff, he can be an asset to the bullpen. “I feel like I’ve thrown the ball pretty consistently all year long,” Pagán said in August. “I’ve just been able to avoid one big swing or falling behind to two or three hitters in a row. I think that’s probably the biggest thing I can point to: I’m ahead in counts more consistently.”

Pagán has made adjustments. He’s throwing his cutter more effectively and has changed how he throws his splitter to lefties. But he feels his success has come chiefly from sticking to sound fundamentals and not allowing outlier results or outside pressure to deter him. As a result, his 130 ERA+ is third in the bullpen behind Caleb Thielbar (200) and Jhoan Duran (170). Pagán had a 1.50 ERA in July and has held opponents to sub-.500 OPS in July and August. But that’s not enough to win in the playoffs. Therefore, the Minnesota Twins must use September to figure out their bullpen so they can succeed in October.

Pagán’s performance has been vital, given that Duran has had some weird outings, and Griffin Jax had a 9.00 ERA in August after posting a 0.00 ERA in June and a 2.61 ERA in July. Thielbar has been Minnesota’s best lefty but missed time in May, June, and July. Jovani Moran is Minnesota’s only other viable southpaw, save for Dallas Keuchel. However, Moran’s 27 walks in 42.1 innings pitched made him a liability.

Brock Stewart had an absurd 630 ERA+ before suffering tendonitis in his elbow. He says he hasn’t suffered setbacks as much as he’s had chronic soreness. Still, Stewart feels close to coming back. “I’ve been itching to get back,” he said on Monday. “This has been the most fun I’ve ever had playing this game. It’s a great group of guys. I’ve been itching for about two months now.”

The Twins have begun to convert starters to bolster the bullpen. North St. Paul’s Louie Varland had a 3.34 ERA in six May starts, but he had a 10.20 ERA in two June starts, and Minnesota demoted him. He made 15 starts in St. Paul and had a 3.97 ERA. But the Twins have a full rotation and need relief help, so they called him up and added him to the bullpen. Varland sees himself as a starter but can throw 100 mph out of the bullpen. “I believe the best version of myself is a starter. Starters also get paid,” he said in Cleveland. “I want to stay a starter as long as I possibly can.” Still, he knows it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation, and he’ll do whatever it takes to win.

Kenta Maeda may have to adopt a similar mentality. He will start throughout September, but Minnesota’s playoff rotation looks pretty set. Pablo López, Sonny Gray, and Joe Ryan are their best starters. The Twins also sent Bailey Ober because he’s at a career-high 139.4 innings, presumably to preserve him as a playoff starter. Therefore, Minnesota will likely use Maeda as a reliever in the postseason. Maeda has pitched in 21 postseason games with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and he’s pitched well in all but the 2018 NLCS against the Milwaukee Brewers. From a contract perspective, he’d rather start. But the Twins could use his postseason experience this season.

The Twins also used Jordan Balazovic as a converted starter. He had a 1.29 ERA in June and a 4.35 ERA in July. However, they demoted him after he posted a 7.71 ERA in August. They may not trust him in the postseason, but Balazovic has a strong track record and can be a versatile reliever when he’s at his best. Josh Winder has also proven to be a valuable long-reliever, and Keuchel is a veteran option if Minnesota doesn’t use him as a starter. The Twins are also monitoring Chris Paddack and Jorge Alcalá‘s health, because they are also potential bullpen options. But assuming they keep their pitchers healthy, they should have good high-end bullpen options and depth.

Below are Minnesota’s best bullpen options:

  • Johan Duran: He should be able to close out games, assuming his strange outings are behind him. The Twins can also use him two innings at a time.
  • Griffin Jax: The Twins need their setup guy to be the pitcher he was earlier this year.
  • Emilio Pagán: Minnesota probably shouldn’t use Pagán in the highest-leverage situations they’ll face. But he’s been good enough to trust in the right situations.
  • Caleb Thielbar: Northfield’s finest needs to be at his best in the postseason because he’s Minnesota’s best lefty.
  • Brock Stewart: He changes everything if he’s healthy. Unfortunately, tendonitis is a stubborn condition.
  • Louie Varland: The former Concordia Golden Bear may want to start, but he’s a dynamic reliever. Not only can Varland throw 100 mph, but he can also go multiple innings.
  • Kenta Maeda: The Japanese righty probably isn’t Minnesota’s best option in the rotation. But he’s an effective veteran reliever who’s played under pressure in LA.

The Twins will also have to figure out what to do with Keuchel in the postseason. Balazovic is an intriguing option when he’s pitching well, and Winder has eaten up innings. Minnesota should have enough bullpen options to win in October. It’s a matter of getting there first, “We are not a playoff team yet,” Rocco Baldelli said on Saturday. “We haven’t clinched anything.” But given their cushion in the AL Central, the Twins must use September wisely.

It starts with straightening out the bullpen. The Twins need to ensure they win the division but also know who their best options are in October. Therefore, they should test various receivers to reduce the innings load on the starters and ensure they have the relief help they need in the playoffs. The bullpen isn’t the only thing that matters. Minnesota also needs their starters to stay healthy. Carlos Correa must continue to hit like he has in September, and Royce Lewis’s clutch play will only help them in the postseason. But the bullpen is the biggest uncertainty right now, and it can’t be that when September ends.

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