Around the Horn: Twins eyeing closer for 'pen
May among several candidates with Spring Training looming
Leading up to the start of Spring Training, the Around the Horn series will examine each of the Twins' positional groupings heading into the 2019 season. This final installment takes a look at the bullpen.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Twins still do not have a closer and they haven't made as many moves on the bullpen side as fans had anticipated entering the offseason, but club leadership feels they have several internal options who could step into the role, and if Minnesota is indeed done adding to its relief corps, 2019 could offer an opportunity for the organization's younger pitchers to establish themselves in the Major Leagues.
"We've addressed, in my mind, a lot of things around the pitching side, and so I think there's still potential opportunities that could present, but at present, I really do feel good about the group that's coming together to go to Fort Myers right now," chief baseball officer Derek Falvey said last month.
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Taylor Rogers was one of the most effective relievers in the Majors in last season's second half, and Trevor May put up some of the strongest numbers of his career upon his return from Tommy John surgery. They anchor a bullpen that will also feature the returns of sidearmer Trevor Hildenberger and veteran Addison Reed, and the addition of former Angels closer Blake Parker, and his whiff-generating splitter.
Those five should be in competition for the open closer's role assuming the Twins don't add a more proven arm, and the club could round out the bullpen depth by converting one or more of the starters that don't win the fifth rotation spot. The Twins have long had conversations about converting the hard-throwing Fernando Romero to a relief role, and right-hander Kohl Stewart and left-hander Adalberto Mejía could also be in that conversation.
The Twins acquired Reed, the former White Sox, D-backs and Mets closer, last offseason along with Fernando Rodney and Zach Duke to bolster the back end of the bullpen. Reed got off to a strong start, with a 3.03 ERA and nearly one strikeout per inning through mid-June in his first 31 outings. But the veteran faltered down the stretch, with a 6.56 ERA and only 13 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings through the end of the season.
Similarly, the 28-year-old Hildenberger had a 3.33 ERA through the All-Star break, but he had a 9.00 ERA in the second half, which included a stint as the team's closer after the Twins traded Rodney to the A's at the non-waiver Trade Deadline. Hildenberger led Minnesota's relievers with 73 appearances last season after he recorded a 3.21 ERA in his 2017 rookie campaign.
With Rogers and May coming off successful '18 campaigns, getting full seasons of effective baseball from Reed and Hildenberger will likely be one of the determining factors for the depth in the back end of the bullpen.
Rogers didn't get off to a strong start, but he finished '18 on a roll. As MLB.com's Mike Petriello highlighted earlier this offseason, Rogers had the 10th-best expected wOBA among all Major League pitchers (one spot behind Jacob deGrom) and he didn't allow a run through his final 28 appearances of the season, from July 30 on. Rogers also didn't allow an extra-base hit to left-handed hitters all season.
Once May and the Twins decided that the 29-year-old would become a full-time reliever, he posted the best numbers of his career following his July 31 return from Tommy John surgery. His 3.20 ERA was the best mark of his career, and he posted career-best strikeout, walk, hit and home run rates to go with a career-low 1.03 WHIP. He walked only five batters in his 25 1/3 innings last season.
Parker, who closed 22 games for the Angels in the previous two seasons, was non-tendered by the club during the offseason, and the Twins signed him to a one-year, incentive-heavy contract with a base $1.8 million salary to bolster the back end of the bullpen. Parker had a breakout 2017 in which he had a career-best 2.54 ERA and 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings and he still posted a solid 3.26 ERA with 14 saves last season despite diminished velocity on his pitches. He will also compete for the closer spot and should pitch in the late innings.
Parker's splitter has generated a 43 percent whiff rate since Statcast™ was introduced in 2015, ranking fourth among pitchers generating at least 400 swings on splitters in that period.
Who's in the closer conversation?
New manager Rocco Baldelli has aggressively shied away from naming a closer before Spring Training, especially because he and new pitching coach Wes Johnson haven't had an extended look at the options. It will be an open competition when camp breaks on Wednesday.
All five of the aforementioned pitchers -- Reed, Rogers, May, Hildenberger and Parker -- have some closing experience and will at least be in the conversation as Spring Training begins. Reed is the most experienced, with 125 career saves and three 29-save seasons under his belt, but the majority came early in his career with the White Sox and D-backs. Parker has been a closer most recently, with 14 saves in the Angels' revolving door of back-end arms last season.
But in a season set to include the Twins Hall of Fame induction of Joe Nathan, a previously untested arm that established himself as the team's all-time saves leader, it could be the case that a less experienced closer gets a chance to seize the role.
May, for instance, had career-best peripherals to go with his stats last season, as he posted the best whiff rate and hard-hit rate allowed among returning Twins relievers. He saved three games to finish the '18 campaign. Hildenberger also got several save opportunities last season, saving seven games between Aug. 11 and Sept. 18, though he struggled in September. Romero could also be a late entrant to the competition if he doesn't win the fifth starter role and has time to acclimate to a late-inning role during Spring Training.
Though Rogers was the best reliever in the Twins' bullpen last year and he certainly could be in the competition, the lefty could stay in a more flexible, matchup-based role to maximize his effectiveness.
Would it make sense for the Twins to go after Kimbrel?
Craig Kimbrel, the crown jewel of the relief market, remains unsigned with two days to go before the Twins' first workout for pitchers and catchers, and the seven-time All-Star has naturally been speculated as a possible fit for a team that still hasn't established a closer.
Adding the 30-year-old Kimbrel would undoubtedly make the Twins' bullpen better in the short term, but it would likely require the closer to come down on his contractual demands, as Falvey and general manager Thad Levine continue to seek good value as free agency draws on throughout Spring Training. Kimbrel is baseball's active saves leader, with 333 over a nine-year career.
With that in mind, the Twins also have to balance making bigger moves for an uncertain 2019 with continued development of their young arms for more certain contention years that could arise in the future.
"My view is, bullpens are grown, not necessarily always bought, and I think that when you look at what pitchers we have in our organization, if we're plus on the starter side, in some cases, some of those guys may end up in the bullpen," Falvey said earlier this offseason.
Who could provide depth?
Gabriel Moya, a 24-year-old left-hander, was a significant part of the bullpen picture down the stretch last season, as he pitched in both middle relief and as the team's "opener," particularly in September, when he opened six contests. He should continue to get playing time in the Major Leagues, but he also has Minor League options remaining, so his roster situation could remain more flexible this season.
Mejia, on the other hand, is out of options, and if the 25-year-old southpaw doesn't win the fifth rotation spot, the Twins could elect to try him in an extended relief role to boost his velocity from the left side and avoid having him face lineups multiple times through. Romero could be in a similar situation -- though he's not out of options, he figures to get significant time in the Majors this season, and his hard fastball could play better in the bullpen as he continues to develop.
Matt Magill had a 3.81 ERA in 40 relief appearances last season after signing a Minor League deal with Minnesota during the offseason, and the 29-year-old right-hander, who has a 4.77 ERA in parts of three Major League seasons, could also be in the conversation for one of the final spots on the pitching staff.
Who else is in the pipeline? (MLB Pipeline rankings)
No. 11 Jorge Alcala (age: 23, highest level: Double-A)
No. 22 Tyler Jay (age: 24, highest level: Double-A)
Projected depth chart (2018 statistics)
Trevor May (24 G, 25 1/3 IP, 3.20 ERA, 0.5 fWAR)
Taylor Rogers (72 G, 68 1/3 IP, 2.63 ERA, 1.9 fWAR)
Blake Parker (67 G, 66 1/3 IP, 3.26 ERA, 0.0 fWAR)
Addison Reed (55 G, 56 IP, 4.50 ERA, -0.2 fWAR)
Trevor Hildenberger (73 G, 73 IP, 5.42 ERA, 0.0 fWAR)
Adalberto Mejia (5 G, 22 1/3 IP, 2.01 ERA, 0.3 fWAR)
Fernando Romero (11 G, 55 2/3 IP, 4.69 ERA, 0.7 fWAR)
Gabriel Moya (35 G, 36 1/3 IP, 4.71 ERA, 0.1 fWAR)