After injuries took homegrown all-star closer Glen Perkins from the height of his powers, the Twins have bounced around a few closers in recent years. First it was Kevin Jepsen, who flamed out, then Brandon Kintzler surprisingly emerged as an all-star closer himself before he was traded to the Nats at the trade deadline. Matt Belisle cleaned up down the stretch run for a surprising postseason team. Still, despite that success and his popularity among his teammates, it’d be pretty surprising if the Twins’ front office decided the 37-year-old free agent Belisle was their best bet at closer in 2018.
So, who will be the next closer for the Twins?
The way I see it they basically have three options. They can sign a free agent reliever; there are plenty of qualified candidates on the market. Or they could trade for a closer — or just a really good reliever and call him a closer. The final and in my opinion least desirable route would be to stand pat with the 2017 bullpen and hope an internal candidate emerges in spring training. If I was picking internal options today I would guess the next guy in line is Trevor Hildenberger. It’s hard to say how the rest of the winter will play out and how much weight the six weeks of spring training will carry. (The Twins could also sign somebody off the international free agent market, but I don’t know enough about that pool of players to know if there’s a great closing candidate in the bunch.)
Let’s explore the three options outlined. Today’s column will focus on 5 guys who could be traded. For each pitcher discussed, we’ll list his age as of opening day next season. Also, I’m not looking for a guy who will still be getting outs 8 years from now. I’m looking for somebody who can give me high-end production for the next 3 or 4 years. The names listed here all have closing experience, although I don’t think that’s a prerequisite to being a good closer in 2018. The qualifications for closer would be some elite combination of strikeouts and groundballs, with bonus points for big velocity and steely nerves.
2017 stats: 2.49 ERA in 76 innings with 28 saves, 92 strikeouts, 27 walks and 5 home runs.
It makes sense that the Reds might consider trading a top-shelf reliever. There was a report that the Twins have inquired about the asking price for Iglesias. And well they should. But if you’re Cincinnati and you feel that you’ve got a strong option at closer on a cost-controlled contract at a time that high-end bullpen arms might be seen as increasing in value, well, you’d be smart to ask for the moon for that player. And if you’re the Twins, I don’t think that you ought to be willing to give up the moon in that case.
His 30.1% strikeout rate ranked 27th among all MLB relievers with at least 50 innings last year. The Reds’ closer is under contract through the 2020 season, with a clause that he can “opt out” of that deal in favor of raises through salary arbitration if he chooses to. That means that he’ll likely make a minimum of $14.5 million over the next three seasons, and that’s only if he doesn’t make more through arbitration. I’m guessing he’ll make more.
Iglesias is exactly the kind of pitcher the Twins should be poking around looking for. It’s also true that Minnesota isn’t the only team looking to improve its bullpen.
2017 stats: 2.16 ERA in 79 1/3 innings with 21 saves, 104 strikeouts, 20 walks and 9 home runs.
Much like the Reds don’t “need” a high-end closer, ditto for the Padres. It makes sense that they don’t really need an elite back-end bullpen arm to go from their 71 wins to, say, 75 next year. That’s a nice boost to a team on the cusp of the postseason, but it’s hardly even relevant for a team that would see a .500 record in 2018 as a nice accomplishment.
Hand, who is under team control for two more seasons, was widely believed to be available at the summer’s non-waiver trade deadline, but the scuffling Padres didn’t make a move. I think that says one of two things: it either indicates that teams that needed a closer disagreed slightly with San Diego about Hand’s value, and the Padres held firm in their conviction; or alternatively it says – and I think this is more likely – that GM A.J. Preller asked for a gargantuan haul in any trade dialogue involving Hand.
I pegged the former Chaska Hawks lefty as a potential trade candidate for the Twins ahead of the non-waiver trade deadline. As it turned out, not only did the Padres not move their cost-controlled all-star, but the Twins ran in the other direction, trading Jaime Garcia and Brandon Kintzler away for pitching prospects and international signing bonus money.
Hand was once cut loose by the Marlins and he’s been a better pitcher since taking a job on the west coast. Since joining the Padres, he’s the proud owner of a 2.56 ERA across 168 2/3 innings, with 215 strikeouts (31.9% K rate) and 56 walks (8.3% walk rate). He’s added a slider and it’s been a great pitch for him. Not to suggest that strikeout rate is the only metric that matters when evaluating relievers, but we should point out that he’s one of the best at racking up punchouts. Hand’s 33.4% strikeout rate last year was 17th among relievers, and third among all lefty relievers, trailing only Andrew Miller and Josh Hader (and ahead of Aroldis Chapman).
2017 stats: 3.24 ERA in 66 2/3 innings with 47 saves, 58 strikeouts, 23 walks and only 4 home runs.
Colome served a drug suspension in 2014. The 2016 season was his first as a full-time reliever, and he flexed. In the past two seasons combined, the Rays closer has a 2.63 ERA in 123 1/3 innings, with 25.4% strikeout rate and 7.5% walk rate. He’s saved 84 games in 93 chances (90.3%).
If you don’t play fantasy baseball this guy probably isn’t at the top of your mind when you think of top-flight closers. He is good and could cost a bundle of prospects to get him for three arbitration-eligible seasons before he’s a free agent (after the 2020 season). MLB Trade Rumors has a good system for projecting arbitration raises for players, and the site is predicting that Colome will earn about $5.5 million in 2018. That’s affordable, and the price is relative. Think of a player like Colome as a free agent you’re signing to a three-year deal that will beat the market – he’ll be cheaper than the going rate for closers in free agency for the three seasons before he can become a free agent himself. The catch, of course, is that you’re not only paying that salary to employ him, you’ve also got to give up good players to the Rays.
His strikeout rate went way down this year and his walk rate went up. He wasn’t as fortunate stranding base runners, and in just 10 more innings pitched, he surrendered 12 more earned runs – doubling his total from 2016. So his 3.24 ERA wasn’t as shiny as the 1.91 mark he ran up in 2016. This kind of trade, though, would have a lot to do with the fact that Colome is under team control for 3 more season.
The Rays have done these deals before, so of course they’re aware of the potential surplus of value they have on their hands. Still, would the availability of free-agent relievers and/or other trade targets drive down the asking price? Personally, I’d prefer to call on Tampa’s available starting pitchers, but Colome would be a decent addition to Minnesota’s bullpen.
2017 stats: 2.89 ERA in 37 1/3 innings with 15 saves, 29 strikeouts, 18 walks and 1 home run.
Britton was hurt in 2017, and his numbers reflect that he wasn’t his usual dominant self. Having said that, he’s the prototype for limiting big damage and home runs by making hitters keep the ball on the ground. Britton’s excellent sinker helped him net a 72.6% ground ball rate in his ‘down’ year, which still ranked 2nd in the Majors. To put that into context, Trevor Hildenberger is great at getting ground balls and hitters put it on the ground about 59% of the time off the Twins’ setup man.
If the Orioles intend to be competitive this year in the final season before Manny Machado hits free agency, well, then it makes no sense to trade Britton. But if they don’t fancy themselves a World Series team next year and give themselves a very low percentage chance to outbid other, richer suitors for Machado’s services – that’s when it could make sense to jumpstart a rebuild.
The red flags are obvious: A left forearm strain and a late-season knee injury that some thought would require surgery. Considering the injuries, the temptation is to throw out his 2017 stats and try to figure out what a healthy Britton could contribute in 2018. He’ll be a free agent next winter, though, so any trade counting on perfect health is a risky proposition.
I’d trade a good prospect for a year of Britton hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. I’d also understand if the Twins got nervous at a high asking price – or if the Orioles aren’t looking to deal their super reliever.
2017 stats: 4.25 ERA in 59 1/3 innings with 26 saves, 56 strikeouts, 20 walks and 9 home runs.
Like Britton, the Royals’ closer has one year to go before he can file to be a free agent. So any trade for him is a trade for one season of relief duty. You’ve seen him pitch with Kansas City, and no doubt what stands out is the fact that he’s always packing heat. Herrera is armed with a 98 mph fastball, and in that sense, he looks like what you’d be seeking in a closer trade target.
But hitters got a lot better last year at making contact against the third member of Kansas City’s former power trio. His swinging-strike rate was elite in 2016 (15.2%), but fell a long way back to merely OK last year (11.2%). Four Twins relievers missed bats more often than Herrera last season, including Michael Tonkin and Dillon Gee (in his relief outings). Tyler Duffey was close.
It’s not to say that Herrera has no shot to be a good closer this year. Relievers are weird and can be hard to predict. It’s just that based on the numbers I’ve seen and the Royals games I followed this year, I’m not sure I’d pay very much at all to try to pry Herrera away from K.C. And I’d have to imagine they’d try to ask for a lot, since they’re like to lose at least two but maybe all three good free agents: Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas.
If I had to rank these guys based on favorable contracts, ability on the mound, and the top-secret ingredient loosely defined as my own blind interest, my list would look like this: