Justin Topa Could Be Minnesota's Emilio Pagan Upgrade

Photo Credit: Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Twins made their first big move of the offseason on Monday when they traded Jorge Polanco to the Seattle Mariners. The Twins also addressed some areas of need by adding a depth pitcher to the rotation (Anthony DeSclafani), a top-100 prospect (Gabriel Gonzalez), and a minor-league flier for the pitching staff (Darren Bowen).

But for all the benefits Minnesota may reap from the trade, the biggest short-term benefit could come in the bullpen, where Justin Topa could represent an upgrade over Emilio Pagán.

Pagán will carry some bad memories among Twins fans thanks to his first season in Minnesota. Acquired with Chris Paddack in the March 2022 trade that sent Taylor Rogers and Brent Rooker to the San Diego Padres, Pagán was a disaster early in his Twins tenure. He served up 12 home runs and had a 4.43 ERA in 59 appearances (63 innings pitched).

While Pagán’s traditional stats indicated trouble, several signs showed he deserved a better fate. His 30.7 percent strikeout rate was in the 90th percentile of major leaguers, and his whiff rate (30.8%) and chase rate (32.6%) also ranked in the 80th percentile.

With the ability to take the ball in any situation, the Twins rolled the dice on Pagán to rebound last year, and the bet paid off. Pagán allowed only five homers and a 2.99 ERA over 66 appearances (69.1 innings) last season.

The strong year helped Pagán cash in on the free agent market with a two-year, $16 million contract with the Cincinnati Reds. Many fans shrugged as he walked out the door, but it left a big hole in the bullpen.

Filling that role is easier said than done on the free agent market. Minnesota’s self-imposed budget restrictions played a role, but so did the absurd price for relievers. The current regime has always been against the idea of paying free agent relievers because of the volatile nature of the position, which left Minnesota to look to the trade market.

Since the Twins aren’t the only team hamstrung by a lack of television revenue, there weren’t many options on the trade market. But this is where the Topa acquisition comes into play and how he can help fill Minnesota’s biggest need in the bullpen.

Topa is a 32-year-old reliever who has worked through the minor leagues. He only had 17 career appearances before breaking in with the Mariners last season. His hard work led to a breakout. Topa posted a 2.61 ERA over 75 appearances (69.0 innings), but other numbers indicated his performance was even better than those numbers suggest.

Topa’s 57.4 percent ground ball ranked in the 94th percentile of relievers, and his 0.5 home runs allowed per nine innings last season shows an ability to keep the ball down. Pagán posted a 0.6 HR/9 rate last season, but the number figures to be an outlier. He had a 1.7 HR/9 rate in 303 games over his first six major league seasons.

Pagán was likely to regress this season, so the Twins were wise to move on, especially at $8 million per season. But there are other ways that Topa can be a better option than Pagán when you look at some of his other flaws.

Pagán had a strong season for the Twins, but he was at his best when he didn’t have opposing players on the basepaths. Pagán held opposing hitters to a .148/.196/.208 (.404 OPS) batter’s line when the bases were empty last season. However, those numbers jumped to .232/.316/.455 (.770 OPS) with a runner on.

The Twins did their best to ensure that Pagán entered games in a favorable spot: 78 percent of his plate appearances came in low-to-medium leverage situations. But Pagán would create issues for himself with his control problems.

Pagán’s walk rate dropped from 9.5 percent in 2022 to 7.7 percent in 2023. But it wasn’t enough to overcome his issues with runners on base, allowing a .229/.328/.500 (.828 OPS) batter’s line in high-leverage situations.

Topa wasn’t as dominant as Pagán was with nobody on base, allowing a .235/.289/.290 batter’s line with a .578 OPS in 156 plate appearances. But he was much better with runners on base, with opposing hitters logging a .248/.303/.376 line with a .679 OPS in 123 plate appearances.

Topa also didn’t create his own high-leverage situations, with a 6.5 percent walk rate in 69 innings pitched last season. But he was also better when it mattered most. Topa held hitters to a .241/326/.386 batter’s line with a .712 OPS in high-leverage situations last season.

However, he needs to miss more bats. Topa’s 26.8% chase rate and 19.1 percent whiff rate were some of the worst in major league baseball last season. But the Twins pitching staff has taken on several projects of this nature, helping Pagán’s numbers jump during his first season with the Twins and unlocking Pablo López to become the team’s ace last season.

A durable arm that can handle high-leverage situations could be a massive boost for a bullpen that found its way late last season. Suppose Topa can continue to keep the ball in the park, limit his walks, and pitch well in challenging situations. Then he can be a valuable piece to making the Twins bullpen even better this season.

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