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Zulgad: Pleasant surprise: Twins don’t disappoint, add much-needed pitching help

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Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Jorge Lopez (48) plays during a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds Friday, July 29, 2022, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)

There was justified skepticism regarding whether the Twins’ front office would make the necessary deals to improve their pitching as Tuesday’s MLB trade deadline approached. Derek Falvey had made significant moves — both trades and free agent signings — since arriving in October 2016, but the trade deadline was a place were the team’s baseball boss seemed reluctant to make a splash.

Even as the Twins set the Major League home run record in 2019 en route to the AL Central title, Falvey did little to bolster the pitching. Reliever Sergio Romo was obtained from Miami for first base prospect Lewin Diaz, and Giants reliever Sam Dyson came over in exchange for three prospects. Romo contributed to the Twins, while Dyson turned out to be injured. Neither trade qualified as an impact move.

The 2022 Twins have been in first place in the AL Central for much of the spring and summer, but that was in large part because the division is filled with a group of underachievers at the top and putrid teams at the bottom. No one who has spent the season watching the Twins could have felt comfortable their pitching was in any way prepared to end this franchise’s historic 18-game postseason losing streak.

The general feeling was these Twins were in need of one starter and two reliable to very good bullpen arms to consider themselves legitimately competitive. All that mattered, however, was how Falvey felt.

The flurry of deals that began Monday, and did not involve the Twins, had skeptics sharpening their keyboards prepared to expressed their angst on social media. That angst was reduced Tuesday morning when the Twins acquired All-Star closer Jorge Lopez from the Baltimore Orioles for four pitching prospects.

That was followed by an afternoon deal with Cincinnati that sent three prospects — infielder Spencer Steer (No. 7 prospect), third baseman Christian Encarnacion-Strand (No. 23) and lefthanded pitcher Steven Hajjar (No. 18) —  to the Reds for righthanded starter Tyler Mahle. Falvey wasn’t done: A final trade sent a non-top 30 pithing prospect to the Tigers for righthanded reliever Michael Fulmer before the 5 p.m. deadline. Fulmer simply had to switch clubhouses, since the Tigers were at Target Field.

The Twins (54-48) began Tuesday a game up on Cleveland (53-49) and three games up on the White Sox (51-51) in the Central and the feeling was the Guardians and White Sox also would be looking to make moves. But Cleveland did nothing, and the White Sox added 35-year-old reliever Jake Diekman from Boston on Monday but did nothing on Tuesday.

Falvey, meanwhile, spent deadline day working the phones. The most impressive thing was that not only did Falvey not have to trade anyone off the big-league roster, but only four of the eight of the eight players traded were ranked among the Twins’ top prospects by MLB Pipeline. The highest of those was Steer. No one else traded was above No. 18 on that list.

Mahle, 27, will be under team control through next season, and Lopez, 29, through 2024. The 29-year-old Fulmer is a rental and will hit the free agent market this winter. But if he can improve a bullpen that far-too-often has caused Twins fans to hold their breath and hope, nobody will complain about his brief stay in Minnesota.

This should mean no longer putting Emilio Pagan into games in key spots, or having Dylan Bundy or Chris Archer look like they might have to start a game in the best-of-three first-round playoff series. Those assignments likely will go to Sonny Gray, Mahle and Joe Ryan, assuming the Twins hold off the Guardians and White Sox.

That now appears far more likely.

“It feels great,” shortstop Carlos Correa told reporters Tuesday. “My conversations with Rocco (Baldelli) and the guys here, it seems like we’re making the right moves to improve our ballclub. That’s always great. … They are giving us a better chance to go out there and compete. I’m very happy.”

Correa’s presence on the Twins’ roster — which probably will only last a few more months — is a big reason why Falvey likely made the moves he did. Correa agreed to a three-year, $105.3 million deal in March after not finding a long-term deal to his liking, in part because of the offseason lockout that brought baseball business to a halt. Correa is making $35.1 million this season, but has an opt-out clause after the season.

Correa almost certainly will exercise that option, and that’s why Falvey needed to pounce on the opportunity to make his team as competitive as possible at the deadline. For the first time in his five years with the Twins, Falvey did exactly that on Tuesday.