There are many old philosophies in baseball. Some are valid, and some aren’t. But the idea that a team can never have too many pitchers has constantly remained true throughout the decades of the game, especially in a team’s bullpen.
Last year, the Minnesota Twins bullpen had a collective 3.95 ERA, the 15th-best in the league, and tied for the fourth-lowest by a Twins bullpen in the last 10 years. But league-average bullpens have their cracks, and last season’s iteration of Minnesota’s bullpen certainly had that with 28 blown saves.
The Twins enter the off-season as the favorites to win the American League Central again in 2024. But they still have holes to fill, and the bullpen is chief among them. However, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine’s regime hasn’t frequently spent much money on relievers. The two times they had with Addison Reed and Alex Colomé didn’t work out well.
Reed and Colomé’s struggles are why the Twins are known more as frugal spenders on free-agent relievers. Minnesota prefers lower-cost options who turn out to be exactly what they paid for or become a high reward. They signed Tyler Clippard for just under $3 million in 2020, and he posted a 2.77 ERA, 2.65 FIP, and 165 ERA+ in 26 games during the pandemic-shortened season.
Then there’s Hansel Robles, who the Twins signed to a one-year, $2 million deal in 2021. Robles was far from stellar for Minnesota that year. He posted a 4.91 ERA, 4.83 FIP, and 87 ERA+ in 45 relief appearances before they traded him to the Red Sox for minor-league reliever Alex Scherff.
With the Twins scaling their payroll back in 2024 with the loss of television revenue, it’s fair to speculate that they will not spend more than $3 million for any single free-agent reliever on a one-year deal. Below are three names that fit into the one-year, $3 million, and under category that Minnesota should consider for their bullpen next year.
Early in the season, it almost looked like 2023 could have been Brasier’s last season in the majors. In 20 relief appearances with the Red Sox through May 14, Brasier had an ERA north of 7.00, 1.57 WHIP, 4.35 FIP, and 63 ERA+.
Boston released him a week later.
However, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Brasier to a minor-league deal on June 4 and called him up to join their bullpen on June 21. Brasier, 36, revitalized his career, becoming the pitcher he was when he was a 30-year-old rookie reliever with the 2018 World Series Champion Red Sox.
Brasier posted a 0.70 ERA (627 ERA+), 0.72 WHIP, and 2.48 FIP, allowing only one home run in 38.1 innings pitched. His comeback with the Dodgers has undoubtedly earned him interest to keep his career going for at least another season. Brasier turned 36 in August.
Given his bad performance in the first month and a half of 2023 and a 2022 season where age seemed to be catching up with him, most teams will likely only offer Brasier a one-year deal. The Twins could be one of those teams, paying $2 to $3 million for his services. If he reverts to poor performance, they can cut him easily. However, Brasier would slot in next to Brock Stewart in the bullpen pecking order if Brasier continues to throw the way he pitched for the Dodgers.
Fujinami was one of the most unique rookies in 2023. The 10-year Japanese League veteran came to the United States on a league-minimum salary with the Oakland Athletics. He looked like one of the few bright spots for a fanbase in dire need of one.
Instead, Fujinama had an abysmal start to his MLB career, owning an 8.57 ERA. 4.90 FIP, 1.66 WHIP, 9.5 hits per nine innings in Oakland. He had 5.5 walks per nine innings across 49.1 innings in 34 games. His transition from Japan to the majors was one of the worst in recent memory. It was not out of the question that 2023 could have been his only season in the bigs.
However, the Baltimore Orioles took an interest in Fujinama, trading for him on July 19. Fujinama turned his season around after Baltimore acquired him. While his stats with the O’s were still not eye-catching, they significantly improved from Fujinami’s time in Oakland.
He finished the season by making 30 relief appearances for the Orioles. In those 30 games, he posted a 4.85 ERA and 4.13 FIP, lowering his WHIP significantly to 1.21. He allowed three fewer hits per nine to 6.4 and lowered his walk rate to 4.6 in 29.1 innings pitched.
Fujinami, 29, is one of the biggest gambles for any team to sign from free agency this off-season. However, Fujinami’s fastball velocity makes him enticing. It averages at 98.4 and puts him in the top 97th percentile per Baseball Savant. Fujinami will have to improve his command if he is going to stay in MLB. Still, no matter who signs Fujinami this off-season, they’ll be able to do so affordably because he remains ineligible for arbitration until 2026.
Injuries derailed Hughes’s season last year after a solid rookie season in 2022. He dominated the Chicago Cubs bullpen two years ago, posting a 3.12 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 10.6 K per nine, and a 135 ERA+ in 57.2 innings (57 games).
However, Hughes’ Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) was concerning in 2022. He recorded a 4.64 FIP, which accounted for how solid Chicago’s defense was behind him that season. Hughes spent less time on the mound and was much more limited because he battled a knee injury throughout the year. His FIP ended up projecting his regression last season, even when considering the knee injury.
Hughes appeared in 17 games for the Cubs. In 13.2 innings of work, he posted nearly an identical 4.65 FIP. He finished the season with a 7.24 ERA (63 ERA+), 1.61 WHIP, 9.2 hits per nine. The one bright spot amongst these alarming stats and low workload was his strikeout rate, which remained high at 11.2 K per 9.
If Hughes’s knee injury doesn’t limit his time on the mound again in 2024, he’s undoubtedly a reliever worth pursuing. In 2022, his chase percentage put him in the top 78th percentile in the league. His whiff rate was in the top 91st and his K% top 83rd percentile per Baseball Savant.
Like Fujinami, Hughes is also ineligible for arbitration until 2026. His salary would barely dent Minnesota’s limited payroll for 2024. If he bounces back to his 2022 form, Hughes could be the most effective left-handed reliever for the Twins this year with his strikeout numbers alone.