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Twins’ ‘build from within’ approach to the bullpen is paying off in September

Saturday’s doubleheader sweep of Cleveland was impressive for a lot of reasons. Although Miguel Sano’s eighth inning grand slam will rightly be remembered as the signature moment of the day, it was the bullpen who shouldered the heaviest load. In 18 innings of work, all of which could be considered high-leverage, the ‘pen gave up just five earned runs.

While that’s noteworthy on its own, what’s perhaps more interesting is who carried the Twins through the day. Of the nine pitchers who made an appearance, only three—Taylor Rogers, Trevor May, and Sergio Romo–were on big league rosters on opening day. The other six pitchers all began the year in the Twins’ minor league system.

Saturday’s opener, Devin Smeltzer, split his minor league time between Double-A Pensacola and Triple-A Rochester, posting a 2.76 combined ERA. Zack Littell, who relieved Smeltzer and pitched two scoreless innings, was up and down all season, posting extraordinarily good numbers in Triple-A and the big leagues after being converted to a reliever, where his low-90s fastball has become a mid-90s weapon. Tyler Duffey, who got five outs in the sixth and seventh, pitched 13.2 innings in Rochester before finally sticking with the Twins, where he’s developed into perhaps the second-best pitcher in the ‘pen.

Lewis Thorpe, the opener in the second game of the doubleheader, had a 4.58 ERA in Rochester, though his numbers improved dramatically after giving up 15 ER in his first two Triple-A starts. Cody Stashak, who struck out two in 1 1/3 scoreless innings after replacing Thorpe, had a 3.21 combined ERA between Double-A and Triple-A, with a 12.5 K/9. Brusdar Graterol followed Stashak, striking out three in two electric innings. He was temporarily converted to a reliever in the minors in late-July, where he pitched well in Double-A and Triple-A in preparation for a September call-up. Randy Dobnak, who didn’t appear Saturday but pitched five good innings Sunday and has been an important late-season contributor, began his season all the way down in High-A Fort Myers.

Derek Falvey and Thad Levine frequently discuss their belief that bullpens are largely built from within. In the first half of the season, when the Twins’ ‘pen was their biggest weakness, it was fair to question whether they’d relied too heavily on that approach, after adding very little via free agency. In the offseason, they signed only Blake Parker to a major league deal, and he was DFA’d in late-July. Their big bullpen signing prior to 2018, Addison Reed, was largely ineffective last year after experiencing a dip in velocity, and never appeared in a big league game this season before getting DFA’d. Meanwhile, internal options Adalberto Mejia, Trevor Hildenberger, Matt Magill and Trevor May struggled. Fernando Romero, who was labeled a potential late-inning weapon in spring training, didn’t even make the opening day roster, and had a mediocre year in the minors.

The Twins’ pen was reeling as spring turned to summer, even as the team continued to win. Only Rogers was seen as a lockdown arm, though Ryne Harper and Mike Morin (since DFA’d) were solid. As recently as early August, the ‘pen was a real concern, even after the Twins acquired Sergio Romo and Sam Dyson at the trade deadline. Six weeks later, it’s one of their biggest assets, despite Dyson being hurt for most of his Twins tenure.

The bullpen’s 180 has been due almost entirely to the development of arms at the major and minor league levels. In the majors, May and Duffey have seen their velocity tick up, racked up a huge number of strikeouts, and largely commanded their secondary pitches in the second half, evolving into trusted and effective late-inning arms. Since August 1, May has a 0.90 ERA with 25 strikeouts and four walks in 20 innings. Duffey hasn’t allowed a run in his last 18 2/3 innings. Littell has quietly been just as good, with a 0.73 ERA in 24 2/3 innings since being recalled in mid-June.

In the minors, Graterol returned from a shoulder injury at the end of July as a reliever, after beginning the year as a starter. Throughout August, the Twins groomed him for an eventual September call-up, promoting him from the GCL to Double-A to Triple-A, where he had a combined 2.03 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 13.1 innings. On Saturday, he flashed a fastball that consistently sat at 100 MPH. Thorpe, Smeltzer, and Dobnak were mostly starters in the minors, but all got their feet wet in the big leagues throughout the summer, pitching as both starters and relievers. The Twins reduced their innings significantly in the minors in August in an effort to keep them fresh for big league time in September, and it appears to be paying off. Fernando Romero and Jorge Alcala, both of whom have been starters through most of their minor league careers, are also now on the big league roster after successful late-season stints as relievers.

In sum, Falvey and Levine’s commitment to developing a strong ‘pen internally appears to finally be coming to fruition, after a summer of inconsistency and turnover. The Twins enter the final stretch of the regular season with a surprisingly long list of reliable arms, many of whom navigated them successfully through two bullpen games in one day in Cleveland. A pseudo-bullpen game in the playoffs, which would have sounded absurd in July, may now be a realistic option for Minnesota.

LaMonte Wade Jr.’s development

Although most of the late-season contributors from the minors have been on the pitching side, LaMonte Wade Jr. has been a key addition to the lineup. With Byron Buxton out for the year, and Max Kepler, Jake Cave, and Marwin Gonzalez missing time with injuries, the Twins’ outfield has been stretched thin over the last month and a half.

Although Buxton’s season-ending shoulder surgery is obviously a huge blow, Wade Jr. has helped mitigate that loss, providing stability while the Twins waited for Kepler, Cave and Gonzalez to heal.

Wade Jr. has long been an intriguing player in the minor league system because of his elite plate discipline and defensive flexibility. The former Maryland Terrapin has a career minor league OBP of .389, and has drawn more walks than strikeouts in four of his five minor league seasons. While he doesn’t hit for much power (he did hit his first career big league home run Sunday in Cleveland), his ability to work counts and play center field set him up to be a solid fourth outfielder in the big leagues. Now, he’s a regular on a team trying to lock down a postseason berth.

Wade Jr. played just two games in the big leagues before getting hurt, but since his return on September 1, he’s been solid. Although he’s just 4-for-26, his OBP is .353, drawing seven walks in 34 plate appearances. Eddie Rosario, by comparison, has drawn 20 walks in 546 plate appearances.

Wade Jr.’s best defensively in the corners, but he’s acquitted himself fine in six big league starts in center. His ability to play a respectable center field has allowed the Twins to put Max Kepler and Jake Cave in the corners as they play through injuries. While he may not have a superstar ceiling, his steadiness has been important in September, and he may play his way onto the playoff roster as a fourth outfielder.

 





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