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Who will be the next closer for the Minnesota Twins? Part II: The ‘safe bet’ free agents

Last week the Twins needed a closer and I wrote about 5 trade candidates for the team to consider. The free agent market has moved pretty slowly this year for a number of reasons, and with the winter meeting set to get going this weekend, the Twins still need a closer.

Now, I think the bigger priority should be to add a starting pitcher. But it’s my opinion that if the Twins don’t add at least one starter and one late-inning reliever this winter, it will be a wasted opportunity. There are at least 10 free agent relievers that I think are worth signing – and countless more trade candidates. Easy enough for me to say, since it won’t be my money or prospects to pony up and get something done that improves the bullpen. But even understanding that, I’d be really surprised if Derek Falvey and Thad Levine and Co. looked at the current sketches of the 2018 club and decided that the 36-man pitching staff they used last year was good enough to just roll over for a contending team the upcoming year. (OK, they’re probably focusing more energy on the top of the staff, like the first 12 or 20 guys. I just think it’s remarkable that the Twins experienced such a drastic turnaround during last year’s postseason run despite running 36 different guys out to the mound!)

If they want to go the trade route, it’ll cost them some good players. If they want to go the free agency route, there are options, and all of them will cost the Twins some money. I think in most cases you’d prefer to spend cash than prospects. So let’s explore the free agent options.

This column presents 5 thoughts on the relievers I’m calling “safe bets.”

Wade Davis, 32 years old
2017 stats: 2.30 ERA in 58 2/3 innings with 32 saves. He had 79 strikeouts, 28 walks and 6 home runs allowed.

Wade Davis is at the top of nearly every list I’ve seen this winter. Davis is the crème de la crème of free agent closers. If every pitcher were to get an identical contract this winter, it’d be hard to argue with 100% certainty for any closer not named Davis to be the top dog. The pitfalls exist, like they do in every case of a veteran pitcher agreeing to pitch for a lot of money based on past performances. Still, we’re not all the way to the point where teams are paying exclusively for future performance. And Davis’ name value and great results will net him a big multi-year contract.

Davis struck out 32.6% of the hitters he faced last year, and he’s been one of the best relievers in the game over the past 4 years. He’s basically the prototype of failed-starter-turned-elite -reliever that every team hopes to emulate with its starters that didn’t live up to expectations. Glen Perkins fit that category, and now it’s en vogue and Davis is the poster child.

Davis set a career high in swinging strike rate last year, with a really good 15.4% mark. He isn’t in the same elite company in this category as guys like Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen, but he’s right there in the top-20 relievers alongside Aroldis Chapman and Cody Allen. He’d instantly become the best strikeout artist in Minnesota’s bullpen, and he’s got the big-game experience to push every reliever one rung down the ladder. If you’re paying big money for someone like Davis, you’re expecting that he helps you to keep up with the recent trend of bullpens taking over postseason games – and that he’ll deliver some valuable innings in the postseason.

Maybe he won’t get Aroldis Chapman or Kenley Jansen money, but would a Mark Melancon contract – 4 years, $62 million — get the deal done?

Greg Holland, 32 years old
2017 stats: 3.61 ERA in 57 1/3 innings with 41 saves. Had 70 strikeouts, 26 walks and 7 home runs allowed.

Holland was the man in the first half and then things went south. He’s officially the third member of the old Royals power trio to make this column series. I included Kelvin Herrera in the trade piece. Holland missed 2016 after Tommy John surgery, but I don’t think it’s worth pretending that I can handicap his chances of getting injured again at some point in the next five years. (If you can tell me which pitchers will get hurt, let me know so that I can adjust my rankings accordingly.)

Holland has a similar swinging strike rate as his ex-bullpen mate, Davis, at 15.3%. That’s right in line with guys like Cody Allen, Chad Green, Carl Edwards Jr., and Sean Doolittle. Holland ranked 31st among qualified relievers in strikeout rate last year (29.8%), sandwiched between Anthony Swarzak and Pat Neshek. Hanging around that group in strikeout rate were Reds closer Raisel Iglesias and Pirates closer Felipe Rivero.

These are good relievers. Here’s one of the questions of the winter: Do you want to pay a good reliever like a great reliever or would you rather roll the dice that a stealthier option might give you more surplus value? And I’m not being flippant with that, since I genuinely don’t know which route I’d prefer. On one hand, names like Davis and Holland seem to lend themselves toward more certainty. On the other hand, you’re going to have to pay those guys significant dollars whether or not they hold up and perform like relief aces.

Holland pitched in hitter-happy Coors Field last year, although he was a better pitcher at home than he was on the road. I don’t know what to make of that at first blush, but I’d look into it if I was going to spend $50+ million to make him my closer.

Note: If the Twins sign Davis or Holland they’d have to give up a high draft pick. They both rejected the qualifying offer from their former employer. So those former clubs will watch closely to see if each reliever breaks the $50 million barrier, since a contract north of that threshold would net a higher draft pick as compensation.

Signing Alex Cobb — or several other choice free agents — would cost Twins a high draft pick

Brandon Morrow, 33 years old SIGNED 

Update: Morrow agreed to a 2-year deal with the Cubs, according to reports.

2017 stats: 2.06 ERA in 43 2/3 innings with 2 saves. 50 strikeouts, 9 walks and no home runs allowed.

A guy so good that he was used in the World Series seven times. How many pitchers can claim that on their resume? Morrow wasn’t a closer in 2017, so he differs from the first two guys on this “safe bet” list. And yet, for me he’s comfortably in the top three among relievers I’d trust to spend top dollar on this winter. (In fact he’ll probably be cheaper than those other two guys and despite being a year older than Davis, could prove to be the better value.)

Morrow’s 29.4% strikeout rate is just a tick worse than Davis’, and he’s on the top shelf of relievers when it comes to dialing it up and getting a swing-and-a-miss when it’s needed. Not quite in Craig Kimbrel/Kenley Jansen territory, but a big jump forward in that category this year has him in the conversation of the best relievers on the market. That’s why he won’t get paid as handsomely, too. Morrow converted from starter to reliever in 2016 with the Padres, and he only logged 16 innings that year. So 2017 was his first full year out of the ‘pen since his rookie season in 2007. That’s why, despite great strikeout and walk rates, at 33, it’s hard to imagine Morrow getting a mega contract.

In my opinion, the Twins could do worse than to offer a multi-year contract to Morrow and ask him to be their closer. I say he’s a “safe bet” because he’s one of the best late-inning relievers on the market. It’s still a bit of a gamble.

Addison Reed, 29 years old on opening day
2017 stats: 2.84 ERA in 76 innings with 19 saves. 76 strikeouts, 15 walks and 11 home runs allowed.

He’s striking out a batter per inning and limiting walks (4.9% walk rate ranked 3rd in the National League last year). There’s value in simply not walking people, but it’s worth noting that Reed’s 24% strikeout rate was exactly 50th among N.L. relievers last year. If you’re going to trust a guy at the end of games with the biggest outs, it’s a very nice perk to be able to strike out hitters and take the bat out of their hand. Reed’s 13.7% swinging strike rate is good, but the overall swing-and-miss rate last year was middling, and unlike other guys on this list, he doesn’t have the big fastball. He’s not exactly the type of name that will sell tickets. This column isn’t about selling tickets. It’s about making the Twins bullpen better. And Reed would do that.

The one problem that jumps out is that 11 of the 306 hitters Reed faced last year took him deep. He’s younger than the other pitchers on this list, but he also probably has the lowest top gear. If each of these 5 guys performs to his own 99th percentile, where would you rank Reed?

When you look at track record, though, on a list of “safe bets,” Addison Reed is reliable. The thing about safe bets is that the money required to sign these guys won’t leave a lot of room for extra value. I’m willing to guess that whichever team signs Reed is not going to get a bargain contract. You’re going to hope to get what you pay for. And if his track record is any indication, Reed is a good play. He was amazing in 2016, and a little less so in 2017. His fielding-independent metrics suggest he pitched worse last year than his 2.84 ERA would suggest. My opinion is that if Reed is going to cost the big bucks that established closers are getting these days, a team like the Twins could do better.

Who will be the next closer for the Minnesota Twins? Part I: Trade candidates

Juan Nicasio, 31 years old
2017 stats: 2.61 ERA in 72 1/3 innings with 6 saves. 72 strikeouts, 20 walks and 5 home runs allowed.

While Nicasio finished the season as the closer in a postseason race (on the Cardinals), he’s perhaps the biggest risk on this “safe bet” list. I was looking for guys who had certified closing experience, and Nicasio fits that mold.

There’s a downside to any one of these potential signings. For Nicasio, there’s plenty not to like if you’re going to commit big money. I should start by saying that Nicasio was a good reliever last year, and if the Twins head to Fort Myers with him and one other additional bullpen arm, they’ll be in a lot better shape. Nicasio looks the part, at least, with a big fastball that sits at 95-96 mph, which is a good pitch for him. When Nicasio was available late last summer I thought he could have made good sense for the Twins. Now, he’s a free agent, so they could have him if they wanted him.

If you’re investing big dollars in a late-inning reliever, though, you’ve got to be ruthless in your search for flaws, and so we’re inclined to mention the bad: Nicasio saved just 6 games in 10 tries. And this was technically his first full season out of the bullpen, although he’s bounced around every year since 2014. He pitched for three teams last year, but don’t hold the job-hopping on his resume against him. (They were unique circumstances that led to him leaving Pittsburgh late in the season, and then eventually getting flipped from Philly to the Bucs’ rival in St. Louis.) He had an above-average strikeout rate—barely. MLB relievers struck out hitters 23.3% of the time last year, and Nicasio did so 24.7% of the time. That ranked 97 among all relievers with at least 40 innings pitched, one spot behind Addison Reed. And 9 Twins relievers got swings and misses at a higher clip than Nicasio last season; despite reports of great raw stuff, he’s not avoiding contact as often as the best relievers in the game.

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