MINNEAPOLIS – The first season under new Twins management has felt to me like a constant push and pull of expectations.
New leaders took over in November and talked about sustaining championship-caliber baseball, and with the wave of a microphone, expectations raised among the Twins fans who still were tuning in. We all remembered, though, that the team had lost 103 games the year before, and even in the better year that preceded it, they’d just barely topped a .500 record (83-79).
Then the Twins signed Jason Castro and vowed to improve the pitching staff by way of improving the team defense. That inspired hope, since the pitching was by far and away the top problem for the 2016 Twins.
But then the Twins were mostly quiet the rest of the winter, settling mostly to agree to minor league pacts, or adding a veteran reliever with a strong but not dominating track record. OK, it seemed like the Twins weren’t quite jumping head-first into the contention waters. Wait and see how the young players develop, the thinking might have gone. Don’t take opportunities away from players that you believe could be long-term fixtures. It seemed to me like a reasonable long-term strategy. That inactivity leading up to spring training seemed to do well to keep a cap on expectations from Twins fans.
Now, you might say that the Twins have overachieved. Entering Sunday’s game against the division-leading Indians, the win-loss record was similar between Minnesota and Cleveland. The Indians had just overtaken the Twins for the A.L. Central by sweeping a doubleheader the day before. Both the Twins and Cleveland had scored an identical 310 runs in 66 games apiece. The difference is in the pitching staff.
While some pundits have waxed over the decline of the Indians’ pitching staff, the Twins have given up more than a run more than the Indians per game.
Twins pitching has been bad, and specifically at home (for whatever reason). Twins pitching ranks last in the league at home in categories like ERA (5.52), opponent batting average (.278) and opponent Weighted On-Based Average (.353). You can’t find many Twins fans who want to argue that pitching is not the primary problem for the team right now. Injuries to Trevor May, J.T. Chargois, Phil Hughes, Hector Santiago and Ryan O’Rourke have cost the Twins. The replacements haven’t been up to the task.
And yet, they were in first place for more than a month, and even after losing 4 in a row to the Indians, the Twins still are within striking distance of first-place Cleveland.
The boat has sailed for longer than some would have expected this winter. Now it’s clear that there’s a leak. So how do you fix it? Assuming you’re willing to go the trade route – and I believe the Twins should be willing to do that – it’s probably time to start making phone calls to teams falling out of contention. That pool may be limited. For the purposes of this column, I’ve eliminated teams I think could play in the postseason. I’ve also crossed off American League Central teams because of the sports media’s long-held (and maybe exaggerated) belief that teams won’t trade within the division. I focused primarily on short-term relievers, even though I know the Twins would prefer to acquire players with more years of team control. The problem, the way I see it, is that relievers of that sort are much more expensive, and if I was in the Twins’ position, I wouldn’t want to deal significant future assets to help the 2017 team win more games.
Here are 5 relievers that I think would be upgrades in the Twins’ bullpen. This list is just for fun. I have no idea if these pitchers will be made available.
The former Twin and Minnesota-native is pitching for his sixth MLB team and he’s having a great year. The side-armer with a funky delivery has a 0.69 ERA through 26 innings. There’s some good news and bad news in his peripheral stats, but I think the veteran could be worth a run for the Twins – if the price tag is appropriate. Neshek has 23 strikeouts and 4 walks, which is right in line with his career strikeout rate (24.5%) and an improvement on his career walk rate (4.3%). His swinging strike rate sits at 10.1%, which is about the same as Matt Belisle – good enough to get by, probably, but not quite in the neighborhood of relievers like Tyler Duffey or Ryan Pressly.
The bad news – if you want to think about it this way – is that Neshek has stranded 97% of runners this year. That’s a good thing for the Phillies, and it’s driving his sparkling ERA. But I wouldn’t bank on that rate continuing if I ran a rival club. He’s also only allowed 1 home run this season in the 94 hitters he’s faced.
Even if there’s some regression in Neshek’s future, he’s been a solid reliever for years now, and he hasn’t posted an ERA higher than 4.00 since 2011 (the year he left Minnesota). He’s making $6.5 million this year and that number could go up based on games finished, according to reports. He’ll be a free agent this winter.
Storen’s strikeout rate is down slightly and his walk rate his up, but his ERA is a pretty 2.54. Other stats like FIP suggest that could rise before the season’s out, but I think Storen would be a worthwhile steadying presence in the Twins’ bullpen.
Storen, 29, signed with the Reds as a free agent this winter for just $3 million after a down year last season. He’s been used mostly in the 7th and 8th innings, as the team has primarily used Raisel Iglesias to close out games. Cincinnati is 10 games below .500, and even in an unpredictable NL Central, they’d have to leapfrog better teams like the Cubs and Cardinals and Brewers to make noise in the division.
Storen’s been used almost exclusively as a late-inning reliever in his 8-year career, and he’s been to the postseason twice with the Nationals.
If the Reds are willing to deal but Storen costs too much, maybe ask them about Blake Wood (3.86 ERA, 3.35 FIP, 23% strikeout rate, 10% walk rate, 61% groundball rate).
I’m breaking my rule a little bit here in the name of bringing a Minnesotan back home. Chaska’s Brad Hand has made a nice career for himself in the big leagues. He isn’t entering free agency, so I have no idea if he’d be available.
The Padres are 17 games back of the NL West lead, and even in an era in which most teams can convince themselves they’re good enough to make the postseason, it looks to me like San Diego should look toward the future.
The Marlins DFA’d Hand early in the 2016 season, and the Padres claimed the lefty reliever. Since then, he’s been great. He has a 2.90 ERA in 127 1/3 innings since joining the Padres. And his swinging strike rate (and strikeout rate) spiked when he left Miami. He’s struck out an impressive 30% of the hitters he’s faced with the Padres. The best rate he had with the Marlins was 18.3%. Similarly, he topped out at an 8.3% swinging strike rate in Miami; last year in San Diego that rate shot up to 12.2% and this year he’s at a career-high 13.8%.
Considering the two seasons of team control remaining, the Padres’ asking price for Hand should probably be steep. So if that’s too rich for the Twins’ blood in what was supposed to be the next step in a multi-year rebuilding process, maybe they could instead ask about Kirby Yates (experiencing a breakout year at age 30: 3.18 ERA, 3.84 FIP, 37.2% strikeout rate, 7.5% walk rate, 3 years of team control remaining, and was already DFA’d twice this year by the Anaheim Angels).
Maybe it’s too early to assume the Mets will fold up the tents. They’re currently second in the N.L. East. But with mounting injuries to their pitching staff, they’re already 12 games out of the wild card race and they’d have to chase down and catch the Nationals to win the division.
If they do look toward the future, Reed has been a popular trade rumor. He’s making $7.75 million to close games for the Mets this year, and he’ll be a free agent in the winter. If you’re the Mets, maybe you hope Jeurys Familia is back to close for you next year, and you can get a nice return for Reed.
If that’s the case, Reed, 28, is having a good year at a good time. He’s currently sporting a 2.80 ERA in 35 1/3 innings, with a 38:5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He once saved 40 games for the Chicago White Sox, and has 117 saves in his career. He might cost a lot. He might also instantly become the Twins’ best reliever, easing the burden on guys like Tyler Duffey, Taylor Rogers and Brandon Kintzler.
While we’re looking at the Mets bullpen, I also like Jerry Blevins – and I thought he’d be a good target for the Twins this winter. Blevins posted a 2.79 ERA last year (3.05 FIP), and he’s got a 2.25 ERA so far this season (2.35 FIP). He’s also taken a big jump forward with his strikeout rate, 37.9%, which is the same strikeout territory as guys like Andrew Miller, David Robertson and Kirby Yates. Blevins is tied for the MLB lead for most appearances this season (36) and has pitched mostly in the 7th and 8th innings for the Mets. He’s making $5.5 million this year and has a $7 million club option for next year, so maybe the Mets would prefer to hang onto him and make a run with a healthy pitching staff next year.
I’m intrigued by the idea of Phil Hughes making shorter appearances by returning to Twins as a reliever instead of as a starter. It’s an option the Twins are considering right now, according to GM Thad Levine, and it would also allow Hughes to return to action much more quickly than if he needed to be stretched out to start games. It also could help the longtime starting pitcher regain some of his lost velocity.
Hughes has made 9 starts this year and has a 5.74 ERA. His swinging strike rate is down from last season, and it’s way down from his best year in a Twins’ uniform, 2014.
He’s been on the 10-day disabled list since May 22, as the Twins try to figure out exactly what’s causing him pain. He recently reported feeling a tingling sensation in his fingers. It’s not clear if that’s a residual effect from the thoracic outlet syndrome, or if it’s another matter altogether. When he was placed on the DL, the Twins announced his injury as “biceps tendinitis,” which, once again, may or may not be related to the previous injury.
If he can be any kind of reliable option for manager Paul Molitor, it would give the Twins a fourth trusted reliever. Hughes on his own probably wouldn’t turn around the Twins’ MLB-worst bullpen, but if he’s good it would help. The best part about the addition of Hughes is that it wouldn’t cost the Twins a prospect.
Another name to monitor closely over the next 3-4 weeks: Glen Perkins. Remember him? The former closer hasn’t pitched at the height of his powers since the midway point of the 2015 season. He’s on the comeback trail in Fort Myers. If he can return to even close to what he once was, it’s a big boost to Minnesota’s relief corps. And just like Hughes, his addition won’t cost the Twins a prospect.
Other relievers I considered for the column but didn’t target include: Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle (A’s); David Phelps, A.J. Ramos (Marlins); and a handful of relievers in the A.L. Central that could be a great addition, if you think you can win the trade.