The Twins’ bullpen has been a work in progress through the season’s first five months, but significant help appears on the way.
On September 1, rosters expand from 25 to 40 players. Most teams don’t use the full 40–and the Twins likely won’t either–but they have a cavalcade of arms at Triple-A Rochester who should be with the big club in ten days.
The exciting part for Twins fans is these arms aren’t just Triple-A players who can pitch in blowouts and keep the top ‘pen arms fresh. There is real talent in Rochester, and at the top of the list is the Twins’ top pitching prospect. Here’s a look at who could be with the Twins when rosters expand, and where they figure to slot in in the ‘pen.
When Graterol hit the IL in May with a shoulder issue, it seemed like a big setback for the consensus top 100 prospect. In nine Double-A starts, he had a sparkling 1.89 ERA, and was holding opposing hitters to a .188 average while striking out nearly a batter an inning. Now, in a roundabout way, the injury may have been his ticket to the big leagues this year.
After missing more than two months, Graterol returned in late July as a reliever. In five appearances out of the ‘pen for the GCL Twins and Double-A Pensacola, Graterol hasn’t allowed a run while reportedly hitting 103 MPH in his last outing. He’s since been promoted to Triple-A, and it sure seems like the Twins are grooming him to be a big arm out of the ‘pen in September and possibly October.
Had Graterol not gone on the IL, he likely would be close to hitting his innings limit by now. It’s hard to imagine the Twins pushing him to pitch an extra month or more after a full season of starting. Now though, he’s fresh, healthy, and a potentially big weapon for Minnesota.
The severity of Graterol’s shoulder injury is unclear, and the Twins were surely extremely cautious with him. As the season went on and it became clear they were contenders and in need of bullpen help, the decision was likely made to temporarily convert him to a reliever for this season. By bringing him back when they did, they protected his arm, saved a lot of bullets, and still gave him a month to get used to relieving before coming to the show.
Assuming he does get the call, he’ll likely begin his big league time in low leverage situations. If he demonstrates that the stage isn’t too big for him, his role should increase. A 100 MPH fastball will play anywhere, after all. By the end of the season, we could be looking at a back-end of the bullpen featuring Graterol, Sam Dyson, Sergio Romo, and Taylor Rogers. Looks pretty good, doesn’t it?
Want more 100 MPH fastballs? Like Graterol, Alcala reaches triple digits.
The front office appears to have the fireballer on the same track as Graterol, after both started the season in the rotation at Double-A Pensacola. Alcala racked up plenty of strikeouts there, but struggled with command and home runs, ending his run as a starter with an unsightly 6.36 ERA.
Since being converted to a reliever in late-July, he’s been outstanding. In 12 2/3 IP, he has a 1.42 ERA with 9 strikeouts, 3 walks, and no home runs allowed. He was promoted to Triple-A Rochester last week (on the same day as Graterol), and pitched two shutout innings Tuesday in his debut with Rochester.
Alcala was acquired in the Ryan Pressly trade last year, and is considered a good, but not elite, prospect. With the 100 MPH fastball, he always seemed like a good candidate to eventually be converted to a reliever, and it appears that’s happening now, at least in the interim. If he continues to pitch well in Triple-A, he may join Graterol in Minnesota, giving the Twins a lot of added velocity out of the ‘pen.
Truthfully, Littell probably shouldn’t be in this article, because he deserves to be in Minnesota. In his most recent stint with the Twins, Littell had five consecutive scoreless outings. Since giving up 8 runs in a blowout loss to Tampa Bay, Littell has a 0.96 ERA in 18 2/3 innings, with 17 strikeouts. The Twins had other options, but decided to send down him down when Nelson Cruz was activated from the IL.
On September 1, he’ll be back. Littell has a four-pitch mix, and while he doesn’t overpower hitters, his arsenal keeps them off-balance, and as a reliever he’s touching 95, after mostly sitting 91-93 as a starter. He’s been a significant part of the Twins’ pen in the second half, and after he serves his 10-days in Rochester, he should resume being a dependable arm in the middle innings.
Smeltzer’s a great story, and has been an unexpected contributor to the Twins this year. He’s had a couple of great outings in the big leagues, and a couple that have gone off the rails, but overall his 4.00 ERA and 1.194 WHIP is solid. In the minors, he’s been outstanding, with a 2.46 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A.
Smeltzer can serve as a spot starter for Minnesota, or pitch in long relief. Once he’s up in September, he’ll also have the comfort of knowing that a long outing won’t be accompanied by a plane ticket back to Rochester.
A key part of the Twins’ pen for much of the past two years, Hildenberger suddenly began struggling badly in May, continued to struggle at Triple-A, and eventually hit the IL with an arm issue, where he stayed for two months.
On August 8, he came back, pitching four innings in the GCL before moving up to Rochester, where he pitched a scoreless inning Tuesday. It’s hard to know exactly where Hildenberger is at after missing that much time with an injury. If he can return to where he was in 2017 and the first half of 2018, though, he’d suddenly become another solid option for Rocco Baldelli. It’s easy to forget now, but Hildenberger was one of the two or three most trusted relievers on the team as recently as this April. Don’t sleep on the Cal grad contributing again down the stretch.
One year removed from a dominating start to his big league career, the former top prospect has had a difficult 2019. In spring training, Rocco Baldelli called Romero a potential “weapon” out of the pen, and it’s easy to see why. With a high-90s fastball and wipeout slider, Romero has the stuff to get big league hitters out. This season—his first as a reliever—it hasn’t worked out.
Romero has a 7.88 ERA in the big leagues, and a 4.35 ERA in Triple-A. He’s gotten his strikeouts, but his walk rate and home run rate are both very high at the two levels. That’s the bad news.
The good news is he’s been much better of late. Since taking nearly a month off in the middle of the season, during which the Twins reportedly tweaked his delivery, he’s been good. In 22 2/3 IP since returning on July 12, he has a 3.97 ERA with 27 strikeouts and just one home run allowed. The walks (14 during that span) are still concerning, but he may have done enough to get back to the bigs in September. When he’s on, he can be electric.
Dobnak started the year at High-A Fort Myers, steadily rising through the minors before making his big league debut with the Twins in August, when he pitched four shutout innings against Cleveland.
Minnesota carried Dobnak on the roster for another five days, despite his throwing 68 pitches in his debut. He didn’t make another appearance, but the fact that they didn’t send him down right away despite his being unavailable for a few days suggests they think highly of him, and he may have been in consideration for a spot start in Texas.
After returning to Rochester, Dobnak’s pitched once, allowing one earned run on two hits in five innings. He’s pitched well everywhere he’s been, is on the 40-man roster, and showed he wasn’t afraid of the big stage in his appearance against Cleveland in front of a packed house at Target Field. All of that should be enough to earn him a callup back to Minnesota.
Others: Kohl Stewart, Cody Stashak, Sean Poppen, Ryan O’Rourke