Twins

The Twins Need A New Rubber-Armed Reliever

Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

If somebody told me exactly one year ago that the Minnesota Twins would be missing Emilio Pagán‘s steadying presence in their bullpen, I’d probably laugh them off and continue digging myself out of eight inches of snow that fell the night before.

But a lot can change in a year.

Not only is there little more than a thin dusting of snow along the edge of my boulevard, but I also wonder how the Twins can replicate the production they got from Pagán now that he has signed with the Cincinnati Reds.

Will his departure tank a team that won 87 games and secured a division crown? Is he primed to be a dominant force the league will have to reckon with for the next two years? Probably not. But Pagán became a stand-up guy in Minnesota’s clubhouse and a remarkably valuable asset for the club last year, much to the chagrin of an anxious fanbase with a short memory.

Pagán’s rubber arm was one of the traits that made him so valuable. Not only was Pagán available on countless back-to-back appearances, but he could pitch more than one inning per outing if the Twins needed him to. He stayed healthy and effective for the entire year. When all was said and done, Pagán was one of the more unsung heroes on the roster.

So how will the Twins replace Pagán as they vie for another division title?

Internal Candidates

The Twins will lean on Griffin Jax and Jhoan Durán, their bullpen staples. For the most part, Jax and Durán have been healthy and effective since transitioning to full-time relievers heading into the 2022 season. But beyond those two, injury concerns and less-than-desirable results have limited the list of internal candidates to a small handful. Or at least that’s how it appears at this moment. Maybe someone in the minor leagues has a meteoric rise, and Minnesota thrusts them into regular duty with the big-league club. Or perhaps a middling starting pitcher transitions to the bullpen.

That’s where Louie Varland comes in. Varland and the Twins have said they would like to remain in the mix as a starter, but it’s hard to dismiss the incredible results he produced last September. In seven relief opportunities last year, Varland had a 1.50 ERA with a whopping 12.75 K/9 and only allowed one walk. According to a source in a National League front office, he held opponents to a .471 OPS and had some of the best raw stuff in the league. If the Twins bite the bullet and make Varland a full-time reliever, he could join Jax and Durán at the back end of the bullpen for years to come.

Two veterans who struggled with injuries last year, Caleb Thielbar and Brock Stewart, are also internal options who could step into a rubber arm role. Each showed dominant results when they were healthy, but nagging ailments limited their availability. Thielbar had a 3.23 ERA in 36 appearances (30 ⅔ innings pitched), and Stewart had a sterling 0.65 ERA through 28 outings (27 ⅔ innings pitched). The former has a longer track record of success, but the latter was an absolute buzzsaw. Stewart struck out 35.8% of the opponents he faced, and either could jump into the Pagán role if healthy.

Josh Winder (40 appearances, 70 innings pitched between Triple-A and MLB) and Kody Funderburk (53 games, 73 innings pitched) are other names to watch. Winder would need to be much more effective for the Twins to trust him with a regular role, and Funderburk would have to continue to show that 2023 was not a fluke.

External Candidates

It’s harder to identify someone for this role because of the Twins front office’s history of limiting their investment in their relief corps. They believe they can turn fringe players into serviceable relievers at a value, and they’ve occasionally been correct about that. But some veterans stand out as pieces who would help fill Pagán’s void.

Matt Moore and David Robertson were popular names in Twins Territory around the trade deadline. Moore is a left-handed former top prospect who has had a career renaissance as a reliever. Last year, he had a 2.56 ERA across 50 appearances (52 ⅔ innings pitched) for three teams. He had a rock-solid 10.3 K/9 and an elite chase percentage (98th percentile). Robertson had a 3.03 ERA in 63 games (65 ⅔ innings pitched) for the New York Mets and Miami Marlins. However, Robertson could be nearing the twilight of his career. He will turn 39 in April.

Wandy Peralta is another lesser-known name. The 32-year-old is coming off two quality seasons with the New York Yankees. He has a 2.77 ERA across 119 games (110 ⅓ innings pitched) in that span and might be the rubberiest arm in this collection.

Whether the Twins develop an internal candidate or bring in a hired gun, they know what they need to make up for. Pagán was a polarizing player, but his improved play in the second half of the season shouldn’t be overlooked as a major reason Minnesota had a successful season last year.

But if you were to tell me a year from now that someone on this list filled his role perfectly, I guess I wouldn’t be surprised.

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