3 new faces to know in Twins’ bullpen

February 18th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Do-Hyoung Park’s Twins Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Pitchers have been in Twins camp since Wednesday, and that side of the ball is where we find the majority of the newcomers to the roster. Let’s spend this week’s newsletter space getting acquainted with a few of the relievers. You won’t find Jay Jackson in here, as he’ll be the focus of my next newsletter.

Steven Okert, LHP
Talk about a tall task in making your first impression on your new club: Following Okert’s arrival from Miami in the Nick Gordon trade, the Twins put him between Pablo López and Jhoan Duran for his first bullpen session.

“Obviously, we have some really good arms here,” Okert said with a laugh.

Okert is somewhat like a left-handed Griffin Jax in that they both predominantly rely on a slider and four-seam fastball while using the slider considerably more often -- so, it’s fitting that the two of them actually work out together in Arizona during the offseason.

Okert has heard a bit about the Twins’ reputation working with sliders, and he needs to look no further than to the most familiar face in a sea of new teammates: López, who was teammates with Okert in Miami in 2021 and ‘22.

From afar, Okert saw his old teammate blossom into the Twins’ Opening Day starter and an absolute force in the playoffs -- and he’s excited to tap into those same resources.

“Pablo didn’t have what he had here -- he didn’t have the same slider he has here,” Okert said. “That gets exciting, to see what they’ve done with him. He was already an incredible pitcher. Then, [for him] to come here, he’s taking off. He was incredible last year. To really see them work with him, create what he has, it’s exciting.”

Early in Okert’s career, when he was pitching out of San Francisco's bullpen, he says his wide array of pitches was “very average,” and he worked to give his slider more “sweep” -- and he’s leaned on it ever since.

Josh Staumont, RHP
Thoracic outlet syndrome can often be a death knell for baseball players, especially pitchers. Staumont said he and the Royals spent 12-18 months taking a more conservative route to try to resolve the longstanding issue -- but when he finally opted for the more invasive route and underwent surgery, the findings actually encouraged him.

“It's a very general thing,” Staumont said. “It's like having a headache. There's so many different factors that cause a headache. It's just kind of understanding what caused the TOS. For me, it was blood flow in a vein going down the arm. It's caused by extra musculature in that area, the scalene muscles, so once they removed that first rib and those muscles, it had a huge impact.”

Even after all that, Staumont was non-tendered by the Royals and found a new home in the Minnesota bullpen, one of the very few early moves the Twins made this offseason ahead of their recent flurry of activity.

But Staumont says he’s been at 100 percent for “a couple months at this point,” arrived at Twins camp very early on Feb. 1, and has been throwing ever since. Because he didn’t have his pectoralis minor muscle removed in his surgery, Staumont said his recovery process was mostly tolerance-based, and he began his progression back to the mound in August, a month after his surgery.

When healthy and at his best, Staumont was a late-innings reliever who posted a 2.76 ERA in 90 appearances out of Kansas City's bullpen in 2020-21 before injuries struck. He has a remaining Minor League option and thus offers some flexibility -- but there’s upside here.

“The whole process this offseason was a little bit unforeseen,” Staumont said. “It's understanding that injuries can cost on a lot of different angles between opportunity and staying in the same place.”

Justin Topa, RHP
Even though Topa was technically traded over from Seattle in the same deal as Anthony DeSclafani, they hadn’t actually known each other as teammates, since DeSclafani had, himself, been traded over to the Mariners just earlier in the offseason from the Giants.

“We were joking about that,” Topa said. “Introduced ourselves, and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we were traded with each other.’”

Topa wasn’t a Mariner for a long time, either, but it was where he finally found success for the first time in his big league career. Following an injury-riddled few seasons in Milwaukee, he went to Seattle in a minor trade and pitched to a 2.61 ERA out of the Mariners’ bullpen before the Twins acquired him last month in the Jorge Polanco trade.

“I was telling a bunch of people that just getting the opportunity, one, to be healthy and kind of roll with the punches throughout a big league season and not really get sent down, it makes the comfort level [go up],” Topa said. “And to get that opportunity was huge.”

A key for Topa last season was that he introduced a cutter that he used against lefties instead of his sinker and slider, which helped him correct some of his historical struggles against those hitters, who could often eliminate one of his core two pitches and sit on the other. That allowed him to use more of his changeup against left-handed hitters, too.

He’s a late bloomer who finally experienced that success last season in his age-32 campaign, but he’s controllable for two more seasons beyond this one and could be a valuable longer-term piece for the bullpen if he can continue to maintain his arm health and approach the success he finally found last season with the Mariners.