Since their 15-inning loss to the Rays on Saturday, the Twins have called up four Rochester pitchers–Drew Rucinski, Jason Wheeler, Buddy Boshers and Alex Wimmers–to help their overworked bullpen.
On Thursday, Randy Rosario became the first player this season to be summoned from Double-A Chattanooga.
Rosario likely won’t be the only member of the talented Lookouts’ bullpen to eventually land in the big leagues. Even after losing flame thrower Nick Burdi–who was having a phenomenal year–to Tommy John surgery, Chattanooga’s bullpen remains loaded with talent. Former first round pick Tyler Jay is projected to eventually be a high-leverage big league reliever. Lefty Mason Melotakis, who’s put up strong numbers and is on the 40-man roster, could be up by season’s end. And Luke Bard, another former first round pick, has racked up 38 Ks in 24.1 innings.
John Curtiss, though, has arguably been the best reliever in Chattanooga’s bullpen this season. In 17.2 IP this season, Curtiss has yet to allow an earned run while posting an impressive 12.7 K/9 and earning 9 saves.
Curtiss may not be as well-known among Twins fans as some of his fellow relievers in Chattanooga. He wasn’t listed as one of MLB.com’s top 30 Twins prospects, and wasn’t taken until the 6th round of the 2014 Draft. Curtiss, though, has turned heads with his performance over the past two seasons. After struggling through an injury-filled 2015, he pitched well at High-A last season–earning a spot in the Arizona Fall League–and has elevated his game further this season. Curtiss believes an improved approach has played a role in his success this year.
“My pitch selection’s gotten better,” he said. “I think I’m throwing better pitches in better counts, and I’ve been able to throw my slider for a strike a little bit more. So I’m keeping hitters a little more off-balance than in years past probably.”
Getting to Double-A has been a long journey for Curtiss. Although he’s only 24, he’s already had Tommy John surgery and surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome (the same surgery Phil Hughes had last year), both of which required extensive rehabilitation.
“I’ve had kind of a weird path,” he said. “Five years ago I blew out my elbow in the Big 12 tournament. I got [Tommy John] surgery in August 2012. In April 2013, I needed thoracic outlet surgery. It took me 20 months from when I hurt my elbow until I pitched in a game. I didn’t feel strong and healthy and good until the spring of 2016.”
Finally healthy in 2016, Curtiss saw consistent results for the first time as a pro. He had a 2.66 ERA and 12.5 K/9 combined in Low-A and High-A, and a 2.84 ERA and 18 Ks in 12.2 IP in the talent-rich Arizona Fall League. Curtiss throws a mid-90s four-seam fastball, slider and occasional changeup, but says he predominantly relies on a fastball-slider combo.
Like many relievers, Curtiss began as a starter. He transitioned to the bullpen full-time in 2016, and says the role suits him well. Although he’s been the Lookouts’ primary closer this year, he has an open-minded approach about when he pitches, which aligns well with how many major league teams are now using their best relievers.
“To be honest, I enjoy pitching in the 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th. I approach it the same. It might not be what’s written about, but the outs a guy gets in the 6th with runners on first and second might end up swinging a game,” said Curtiss. “A lot of times coming into the 9th inning, you’ve got a 3-run lead, you should be able to get out of that situation without giving up 3 runs. [The inning] doesn’t change how you pitch, if that makes sense.”
Like many pitchers in the organization, including Stephen Gonsalves, Nick Burdi and Trevor Hildenberger, Curtiss credits Double-A pitching coach Ivan Arteaga, among others, in being instrumental in his development. The duo has been working on reducing Curtiss’ walk rate, which has been high this year (5.1 BB/9).
“I’ve been very frustrated with myself. I’ve had a lot of 1-2 counts go 3-2. I’ve had a lot of out pitches poorly executed where I should have put a guy away with an inside fastball. I sometimes do a better job of getting to two strikes than finishing,” he said. “I think the majority of my walks are out of the windup. I’ve talked to Ivan about potentially getting rid of it. I haven’t done it because I’ve got a better rhythm [out of the windup], and I feel like my pitches are a hair better—a hair more movement and a hair harder.”
Curtiss isn’t a finished product yet, and the Twins may want to see him continue to develop in the minors for a while longer before they consider calling him up to the big club. The results, though, are undeniable. As he continues to put his injuries behind him and see success in the high minors, don’t be surprised if he becomes a legitimate candidate for the Twins’ bullpen before the end of the year.