Although the opening day roster will be the subject of much scrutiny over the next six weeks, it probably doesn’t deserve the attention it gets. The baseball season, you may have heard, is very long. Rosters change constantly, even when a team is doing well.
Two seasons ago, when the Twins went to the playoffs, they used 53 players. Last year, they beat that by one. Particularly on the pitching side, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine have shown a willingness to manipulate the roster to ensure the maximum number of fresh arms are available each day. Although the revolving door with Rochester is less than ideal for relievers with options, it’s doing a disservice to the overall health of the team not to shuttle in live arms when needed.
With that in mind, here’s a look at five players who will likely start the season in Triple-A but could make a significant contribution to the big league club throughout the summer.
Romero has a chance to start the year with Minnesota, but if I was a betting man I’d wager on at least a brief April stint in Upstate New York. It feels like the Twins are grooming Romero to be a reliever (we’ll have a better sense of that when spring games start), and my guess is they’ll want him to get a few innings in that role in the minors before throwing him into the fire, for two reasons.
First, the Twins’ bullpen doesn’t have a lot of open spots. With a fifth starter not needed until late-April, Martin Perez will probably start in the ‘pen. He’ll join Trevor May, Taylor Rogers, Trevor Hildenberger, Blake Parker, and Addison Reed as givens, assuming good health. That leaves two open spots. One of those will probably go to Adalberto Mejia, who is out of options. The second will be a competition between Romero, Matt Magill, Tyler Duffey and others. Romero could win that battle, but Magill probably has the inside track, due to his solid 2018 and the fact that like Mejia, he’s out of options.
Second, Romero’s been a starter his whole career, so the Twins won’t take a transition to the ‘pen lightly. The 23-year-old will need to figure out how to get warmed up in a hurry, and get comfortable airing it out for an inning rather than pacing himself for five or six.
Once he gets comfortable, he could thrive in the role. With a mid-90s fastball that could be upper-90s in short bursts, Romero has the stuff to be a lockdown, late-innings fireballer. His presence could add a lot of K’s to a bullpen that was middle of the pack in strikeout rate last season.
I’m higher on Littell than most, although Derek Falvey also seems fond of the 23-year-old righty, whom he traded for in 2017. Littell got three big league call-ups last season, including two mid-season call-ups in which he was chosen over Stephen Gonsalves, among others.
Yes, Littell struggled in his early big league outings, in which he admitted—and Falvey corroborated—that nerves played a role. In September, he quietly settled down and put up decent numbers, pitching to a 3.71 ERA.
Littell has posted outstanding numbers throughout his minor league career (3.36 ERA, 8.1 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 0.4 HR/9), features four pitches, and is an intelligent player who’s shown an openness to analytics. His ceiling may not be as high as some due to mediocre velo, but he profiles as a solid back-end starter. When the Twins need another starter for the first time, don’t be surprised if it’s Littell who gets the call.
Stewart, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2013 draft, vaulted himself back onto the Twins’ radar after a solid second half in the minors, which he credited in part to discussions with senior pitching analyst Josh Kalk and others. Stewart was instructed to switch from a two-seam to one-seam fastball, and use his curveball and changeup more frequently.
“I’m not as smart as some of the people they have looking at those things,” Stewart told reporters last August. “When they do come to me with something and ask me to make some adjustments, I’m going to trust what they have to say. I think they are in the positions that they are for good reasons.”
The changes Stewart implemented seemed to make a difference. In 40.2 innings in Triple-A last season, he had a 3.98 ERA and very high 57.3% groundball rate. In 36.2 innings in the big leagues he was just as good, posting a 3.68 ERA and 53.5% groundball rate. Stewart makes a living off ground balls—his strikeout rates are pedestrian—his walk rate is solid, and he gave up just eight home runs in 145.1 innings across three levels last year.
Despite being just 24, Stewart’s been in the system a long time, and already went unselected in one Rule 5 draft. Now he’s on the 40-man, with a chance to continue to use his new approach in Triple-A. If he can back up last year’s success with a solid start to 2019, he might find himself back with the big club, perhaps as an opener or long reliever.
The Twins signed Collins as a minor league free agent this offseason, following his return to the big leagues in 2018 with the Nationals. You may remember Collins from his days with Kansas City, where he was a solid, high-velo reliever from 2011-2014. Despite standing just 5’7’’, Collins threw in the mid-90s, racking up high strikeout totals while posting ERAs in the mid-3s.
Then came two Tommy John surgeries, and a nearly three-year stretch in which he didn’t pitch a single inning in affiliated ball. After a late-season return to the minors in 2017, Collins re-emerged in the big leagues last year, pitching 22.2 innings for the Nationals. His fastball now sits in the low-90s, though it’s possible he could still see an uptick in velocity as he continues to distance himself from the surgeries.
After Taylor Rogers, the Twins have a plethora of unproven left-handed relief candidates. Mejia, Gabriel Moya, and Andrew Vasquez all have a chance to stick, but none are a sure thing. If Collins can stay healthy and put up solid numbers in Triple-A, he could be a nice under-the-radar addition to the ‘pen.
Admittedly, Reed doesn’t quite fit the profile for this piece, because he’s out of options and it’s unclear whether he’d accept an assignment to Triple-A if he didn’t make the team. Nevertheless, he’s a relatively unknown name to keep an eye on through March.
It’s interesting the Twins have kept Reed on the 40-man roster all offseason, given that he’s a longshot to make the team and out of options. Perhaps they just see him as insurance if an outfielder is injured during spring training, but they also have Zack Granite and LaMonte Wade on the roster, and a replacement-level corner outfielder is not difficult to find on the open market.
This suggests the Twins see something in Reed beyond just an insurance policy. Only 26, he had a ridiculous season in the minors last year, slashing .342/.453/.520 in Double-A and Triple-A in the Braves organization. Atlanta’s crowded outfield blocked him from seeing much time in the big leagues, where he had just seven plate appearances.
The Twins are likely enamored with his ability to get on base. While the absurdly high .453 OBP he posted last season is likely not sustainable, Reed has shown a good ability to get on base throughout his minor league career (.382 career OBP), and reached double-figures in home runs for the first time last year.
Assuming good health, the only clear path Reed has to make the team is as a fourth outfielder, which would mean beating out Jake Cave for the job. Cave, of course, had a very solid rookie season last year, and is surely the favorite to break camp with the team. Cave does have options, though, so it’s not inconceivable they could opt to see what Reed can give them early in the year, knowing Cave is a more-than-capable replacement should Reed falter.
Nothing more needs to be said.
Others: Stephen Gonsalves, Tyler Duffey, Brent Rooker, Lucas Duda, Ryne Harper, Jake Reed and many more