The Twins are in the market for relief help this offseason, but the front office entered last week's Winter Meetings in Las Vegas with some uncertainty about how this year's bullpen market would develop. There had been a flurry of relievers on the move at the Winter Meetings a year earlier, and Seattle's trade of Edwin Diaz to the Mets also threw an unforeseen wrench into the closer market.
But after actively surveying the relief market in Las Vegas, with some conversations more direct than others, the Twins emerged from the Meetings with a better idea of the landscape and a stated desire to bolster the back end of the bullpen in particular.
"We do feel there is some need to continue to build that group," chief baseball officer Derek Falvey said.
The Twins could shy away from the lengthy, costly commitments projected for Craig Kimbrel and Adam Ottavino. Joakim Soria, Player Page for David Robertson, Brad Brach, Kelvin Herrera and Cody Allen are among other free-agent names on the market for back-end roles. But even if the Twins add to their late-innings crew, could an in-house candidate eventually seize the closer role?
For one, Trevor May can be penciled in as a reliever for the foreseeable future. Even after the 29-year-old was stretched out as a starter during his rehab from his March 2017 Tommy John surgery, the right-hander expressed a desire to Twins leadership to move back into the bullpen for 2018 and beyond.
That proved a wise decision -- according to both traditional and underlying metrics. The 4-1 record and 3.20 ERA in 24 games speak for themselves, and May posted career bests in both strikeout rate (12.8 K/9) and walk rate (1.8 BB/9) and was best among Twins relievers in hard-hit rate allowed (29.5 percent) and whiff rate (32.7 percent). He saw upticks in whiff rates on both his four-seam fastball and his curveball in 2018.
Whether he closes or not -- and he did save three games in late September -- the Twins see a healthy May's continued progression as an important piece of the bullpen picture in 2019.
"When he finished the year healthy and in a good spot throwing the ball pretty well down the stretch there, we felt that's probably our best bet," Falvey said.
But for those that believe in intangibles that might separate closers from other relievers, consider hard-throwing 23-year-old Fernando Romero, who not only has the plus fastball that could serve him well as a bullpen gem, but is also drawing attention for his ironclad mentality.
"I think he has a thirst for competition. It seems to be insatiable," general manager Thad Levine said. "I think he's one of those guys who goes on the mound and toes the rubber and thinks he's about 5 inches taller than he is and is prepared to do battle with anybody who's in the box.
"Whether he's pitching the seventh, the eighth, the ninth, the second or third, or maybe even five or six innings at some point in a game, you have to be determined. I think what is pretty clear to us is that this guy wants the ball when the game is on the line. There will be plenty of opportunities to deliver that to him."
Romero made a strong first impression as a starter in 2018, as he jumped out to a 1.88 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 28 2/3 innings through five starts then settled at a 4.69 ERA over 11 starts before he returned to the Minor Leagues in July.
The right-hander's fastball touched 97.5 mph in 2018, and he showed a willingness to attack the strike zone, even as a starter, as his 50.9 percent of pitches in the zone would have placed third among Twins relievers behind Addison Reed and Zack Littell.
Romero likely won't be an immediate candidate to close, as the Twins still feel that he has a starter's repertoire, pending the continued development of his changeup. But don't be surprised if he factors into the picture in the future.