Did you hear the news? Craig Kimbrel didn’t sign with the Twins.
Kimbrel would have been a good addition to a Twins bullpen that needs reinforcements. The Twins sure look like a great team, and their only weak spot to this point has been the ‘pen. Taylor Rogers has been phenomenal in taking on a similar role as Josh Hader with Milwaukee. He’s capable of entering in the seventh or eighth for a high leverage out, getting a “traditional” one inning save in the ninth, or doing what he did in Cleveland on Thursday and pitching two full innings in a tight, important game. He deserves to be an all-star.
Beyond Rogers, though, there are plenty of question marks. Trevor May looks great at times, and other times struggles with command of his secondary pitches and issues too many walks (13.7% walk rate). Blake Parker has a decent 3.74 ERA, but his strikeout rate is modest (19.8%) for a late-innings guy, and he’s giving up a ton of home runs, usually when he can’t spot his low-90s fastball. Matt Magill and Tyler Duffey have been up and down. Trevor Hildenberger and Fernando Romero, thought to be key pieces in the ‘pen, are both in Rochester. Addison Reed was released in May. Adalberto Mejia was ineffective in April and has been on the IL since.
It’s really been veteran Mike Morin and 30-year-old rookie Ryne Harper who’ve saved the ‘pen. Morin, who has an outstanding changeup, has an 0.87 ERA and hasn’t issued a walk in 10.1 IP. Harper’s been able to spot his 90 MPH fastball effectively enough to set up his nasty breaking ball, and has a 1.82 ERA, 23.5% strikeout rate and modest 5.1% walk rate.
In my view, this is an ‘all-in’ season for the Twins. The much-discussed window is now wide open. The Twins have an elite offense, strong starting pitching, and are in a weak division. The Twins’ record, of course, speaks for itself. These types of seasons don’t come around often, and when they do I believe it’s incumbent on the front office to take full advantage.
For those reasons, I thought the Twins should have overpaid for Kimbrel (something in the neighborhood of 3/55) to get him to Minnesota. They chose not to, and while I might disagree, it’s difficult to rip Falvey and Levine too much here, given their track record. In less than three years, they’ve turned the Twins from a laughingstock in 2016 to one of the best teams in baseball. I’m certainly not suggesting we shouldn’t always be questioning and critiquing those in power, just that Falvey and Levine have earned the benefit of the doubt to this point. Obviously, they know they need to shore up a bullpen that ranks 21 in the majors in ERA, and will surely do so via trades between now and the trade deadline on July 31. If they don’t, it’s a different conversation.
Historically, very few trades happen this time of year. So, if we’re operating on the premise that the Twins need to bridge the gap between now and the trade deadline in seven weeks, what are their internal options if they need reinforcements?
Unfortunately, the picture is a bit bleak. While the Twins have been spectacular at the major league level, the same can’t be said for their minor league system. Injuries and ineffectiveness has been the story of the first two months on the farm, particularly on the pitching side. That leaves the Twins in a bind if key relievers continue to struggle or go down with injuries.
Brusdar Graterol and Stephen Gonsalves are both on the IL with shoulder and arm injuries, respectively, and neither appear close to returning. Graterol was pitching really well before the injury (1.89 ERA), while Gonsalves has made just one start all year.
Zack Littell has a 4.00 ERA in Rochester and has had some uncharacteristic control issues. He struggled against the Rays last week in a relief appearance before getting sent down. Romero, Lewis Thorpe, Gabriel Moya, Chase De Jong, and Jake Reed all have ERAs well above 4 in Triple-A. Andrew Vasquez, fast-tracked to the big leagues last year due to his wipeout slider, has struggled this season and is currently on the IL.
In Double-A, starter Jorge Alcala is flashing a 100 MPH fastball, but he has an ERA near 5 and the Twins would likely be hesitant to rush him to the big leagues and have him transition on the fly from starting to relieving. Former first round pick Tyler Jay has a 4.00 ERA and a very high walk rate. Starter Griffin Jax has a sparkling 1.79 ERA, but his strikeout rate is low (17.2%) and he’s also on the IL.
Aside from Devin Smeltzer, who was just sent down to make room for Michael Pineda, there just aren’t many good options for the Twins. A rash of injuries in the ‘pen over the next seven weeks could put them in a really tight spot. If that were to happen, here are a few names to keep an eye on:
Hackimer is a former fourth round pick who put up outstanding numbers in 2016 and 2017 before an injury sidelined him in 2018. The Twins thought enough of him after 2017 to give him a roster spot in the Arizona Fall League. This season, Hackimer has an 0.90 ERA and huge strikeout rates across High-A and Double-A. He’s also yet to give up a home run in 30 IP.
Vizcaya’s had a similar season to Hackimer, in that he started in Fort Myers, pitched exceptionally well, and got promoted to Pensacola. Like Hackimer, Vizcaya has a high strikeout rate, and is very stingy with the long ball—he’s given up one in 35.1 IP. It should be noted both Hackimer (24) and Vizcaya (25) are old for their level.
Dobnak, a starter, has moved quickly through the Twins system this year, suggesting the front office may be grooming him for a potential call-up the way they did with Vasquez last year. Across three levels, Dobnak has a 1.99 ERA. His strikeout rates have generally been modest, but prior to his last two starts with Rochester, he’s been very stingy in allowing walks, and has given up just four long balls in 54.1 IP. Unlike Hackimer and Vizcaya, Dobnak would have to transition from starting to relieving.
Aside from those three, righty Adam Bray and lefty Sam Clay have been good in Double-A, though both are in their age-26 season and have yet to make it to Triple-A.
If the Twins really wanted to get creative, they could dip all the way down to High-A to bring up starting pitching prospects Jordan Balazovic or Jhoan Duran, but it seems highly unlikely they’d start the service clock on two highly-regarded starters who they’re trying to develop for 2020 and beyond.
Frankly, the Twins are in a really tough spot here. As well as things are going, they simply don’t have the depth in the high-minors right now to help the bullpen. They’ve seen a number of pitchers they were counting on struggle in the big leagues (Hildenberger, Mejia, Romero), backup options struggle in Triple-A (Moya, Littell, Thorpe, Jake Reed, Vasquez), and others go down with injuries (Gonsalves, Graterol, Addison Reed).
Until they trade for help, they’re going to have to piece the ‘pen together with what they’ve got, and hope Rogers can continue to carry a huge amount of the load.