Twins bolster bullpen with López, Fulmer

August 3rd, 2022

MINNEAPOLIS -- The back end of the Minnesota bullpen looks much more secure than it did 24 hours ago, thanks to a pair of impact acquisitions in the hours leading up to Tuesday’s Trade Deadline.

In their bigger splash, the Twins acquired Orioles closer Jorge López in their first deal on Tuesday morning in exchange for a four-player package headlined by left-hander Cade Povich -- the club's third-round pick from the 2021 Draft and its No. 22 prospect -- and hard-throwing right-hander Yennier Cano. Later in the afternoon, right-hander Michael Fulmer switched clubhouses at Target Field as the result of a last-minute deal between the Twins and Tigers.

Twins get: RHP Jorge López, cash
Orioles get: LHP Cade Povich (Twins' No. 22 prospect), RHP Yennier Cano, RHP Juan Nunez, LHP Juan Rojas

Twins get: RHP Michael Fulmer
Tigers get: RHP Sawyer Gipson-Long

Before Tuesday, the depleted leverage corps of the Twins’ bullpen relied very heavily on youngsters Jhoan Duran and Griffin Jax, who both sat in the top 10 in innings pitched among American League relievers in the first half of the season. With López in the mix to throw ninth innings for the Twins and Fulmer available as another setup option, the Twins can now more freely deploy Duran in the most important situations and take some pressure off Jax.

The Twins have needed help for weeks to supplement a relief group that ranked second worst in baseball in WAR as a unit, per FanGraphs. They found it.

“I think it allows a few guys to maybe settle into some different roles that could really help us,” president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said. “So we feel like now, that allows for Tyler Duffey and Griffin Jax and Emilio Pagan and everybody else to kind of slide into different roles. And I feel like it's really going to fit us well down the stretch.”

The 29-year-old López doesn't have a lengthy track record, considering he only converted to full-time relief this season following six uneven seasons as a starter for the Brewers, Royals and Orioles. But his move to the bullpen has made him one of the best late-inning performers in baseball this season, as he was Baltimore's sole All-Star in '22 and owns a 1.68 ERA, 54 strikeouts and 19 saves in 48 1/3 innings across 44 appearances.

"It’s something you don’t expect, but at the same time, you see that coming," López said. "There are a lot of things -- talking and expectations -- that’s tough, but as a player, you don’t get distracted by those things. I already got traded twice. And just for me, another blessing. Just completely life-changing.”

Following López's transition to full-time relief, his stuff has ticked up in a big way, as his primary pitch, the sinker, jumped from an average of 95.3 mph in 2021 to 97.8 mph this season, and all of his other offerings also bumped up by roughly two miles an hour. López's sinker helps him generate lots of contact on the ground, as his 60 percent ground-ball rate ranks fourth among all AL relievers who’ve thrown at least 40 innings this season.

While Twins manager Rocco Baldelli has usually been quite reluctant to slot his relievers into defined roles, he indicated on Tuesday that López is going to pitch a “fair amount” in the ninth inning, in part because the right-hander is relatively new to relief and his only real exposure to action in the Baltimore bullpen had been in that role.

"I always say that when you get a new opportunity, you keep learning [about what had been uncomfortable]," López said of his transition to the late innings. "You just go out there and compete. I don't think you get any comfort in any spots. You just have to do it and work for it. Just put yourself in the position where you can just stay positive, and you can do this. So I’m really thankful for all the hard work we did.”

López isn't a rental, either, as he was arbitration-eligible for the first time this season and can't be a free agent until after the '24 campaign.

Fulmer, on the other hand, is a rental, as he’ll be bound for free agency following the ‘22 season. He had a 3.20 ERA with 39 strikeouts and 20 walks in 39 1/3 innings across 41 appearances, marking his second straight season of consistency out of the bullpen following his transition from the rotation after the ‘20 season.

As a starter, Fulmer was the AL Rookie of the Year Award winner in 2016, when the former first-round pick posted a 3.06 ERA in 26 starts for the Tigers. He underwent Tommy John surgery in ‘19 and wasn’t as effective as a starter upon his return, leading to this career renaissance in the bullpen.

"We have some power arms that we can throw out there,” Baldelli said. “That’s what you need sometimes to compete with the power bats, and I think that’s the kind of bullpen that we have. We have a good-looking group that has a lot of different skills and can attack guys in different ways, but the stuff that we added is impressive.”

The Twins landed López and Fulmer without parting with any of their top-ranked prospects, though Povich appeared likely to move up from his No. 22 organizational ranking after he turned heads with much better velocity than expected and a strong showing thus far in his first full season of professional baseball, in which he owns a 4.46 ERA with 107 strikeouts in 78 2/3 innings for High-A Cedar Rapids.