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Wetmore: Twins made safe bets to upgrade bullpen, which should leave some money for a starter

The Twins set out this offseason with two primary areas in need of improvement for the 2018 season: starting pitching and relief pitching. Even without getting the top names on the market, Minnesota has done well for itself to get a few affordable relievers under contract.

If my math is correct, Addison Reed’s reported deal should push the team’s opening day payroll to about $109 million, depending on what Kyle Gibson gets paid for the 2018 season. That’s a little bit more than last year’s opening day payroll, although it should still leave plenty of room to spend money on a good starting pitcher. Last year’s payroll was at least partially reflective of the team’s front office believing that it was not among the clubs with legitimate World Series aspirations. Now that they’ve shown they can make the postseason, the next goal should be to win a division title. And once that’s your guidepost, you can expect to spend more money on the margin of your roster to compete with the best.

We’re getting a little bit ahead of ourselves.

I think the Twins have made three safe bets to improve their bullpen with Zach Duke, Fernando Rodney and Addison Reed. And the sum total of those 3 bets should mean Minnesota’s relief corps is better this year, and it should leave room to spend in other areas.

There have been 3 contracts given to relievers this year that will guarantee at least three years of employment. All of those were handed out by the Rockies, who may have had to “overpay” to get a good reliever — or three — to sign up to play at Coors Field. But beyond just contract length, some relievers are getting rich on a per-year basis.

Wade Davis signed in Colorado and will make about $17.33 million per season. Brandon Morrow will make $10.5 million per year on the north side of Chicago. Tommy Hunter turned a nice year and a big fastball into $9 million per year from the Phillies. Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee are going to Colorado as well, and they’ll each make $9 a year over 3 seasons. And Juan Nicasio, an under-the-radar good reliever, signed on with the Mariners for 2 years and $17 million ($8.5 per year).

Reports: Twins agree to terms with free-agent reliever Addison Reed

Just some quick math for context: The Rockies committed $106 million to upgrade the back end of their bullpen (and likely will lose Greg Holland in free agency). The Twins, while not as splashy and not quite the same level of upgrade, did make their pitching staff better for about $23.4 million guaranteed, or less than one-quarter of the cost of Colorado’s ‘pen improvement.

Against that backdrop of relievers getting rich this winter (even before Holland signs for some good money), it’s impressive that the Twins were able to make their bullpen look demonstrably better without creating problems in the payroll department.

Zach Duke, 34 years old on opening day
2017 stats: 3.93 ERA in 18 1/3 innings. 12 strikeouts, 6 walks and 3 home runs allowed.
Salary: $2.15 million guaranteed for one year, with appearance-based bonuses that can push the contract to a total of $3.65 million.

Duke had Tommy John surgery and returned in 2017 but only pitched 18 non-descript innings. From a stats perspective, I think we can learn more about Duke from his previous 3 seasons, which were good. In those three seasons, Duke pitched to a 2.74 ERA in 180 1/3 innings with a 27.7% strikeout rate and 10.4% walk rate.

Duke is in his mid-30’s and nothing is guaranteed in terms of performance at that point. But relievers can certainly pitch effectively into their late 30’s (and the Twins are counting on Rodney entering his 40’s). And taking a formerly reliable reliever and betting on a bounceback is a verified way to save money. It’s sort of like what the Twins are doing with Michael Pineda, only a little bit different. With Pineda, they’re basically saying, ‘Look, we’ll pay for your rehab, we’ll see what happens in 2018, and then in exchange, you’ll pitch for us at what ought to be a discount in 2019.’ Whereas with Duke it’s more like they’re saying, ‘Hey, you’ve been a good pitcher and we’ll bet a couple million bucks on you being good for us, and if you’re really good for us, you deserve to be paid more than that guarantee, so here are some performance bonuses.’

If he pitches 65 times for the Twins he’ll make some money. Even then, it’s an affordable deal, and paying out that award would be a good sign for the Twins. It would mean Duke was a reliable arm all year out of their bullpen. And they were looking for those.

Fernando Rodney, 41 years old on opening day
2017 stats
: 4.23 ERA in 55 1/3 innings with 39 saves. 65 strikeouts, 26 walks and 3 home runs allowed.
Salary: $4.5 million guaranteed, including 2018 salary plus a $250,000 buyout for 2019 at the Twins’ discretion. If Rodney is everything they hope for, he can earn a total of $13.5 million over two years, according to Baseball Prospectus.

First of all, I don’t think it’s very likely that Rodney will be so good over the next two years that the Twins will need to lean on him for 65 appearances per year in his age 41 and age 42 seasons. But if that does happen, it’ll be a great sign for the Twins, because they just added a really good reliever for less than the Mets are betting on Anthony Swarzak.

But the thing I really appreciate about the Rodney deal is that it can’t really blow up on the Twins. If age has caught up to Rodney and he simply can’t reign in the walks, if he tip-toes that familiar tight rope night after night and is not a reliable reliever in Year 1 of the deal, well, then the Twins can simply cut bait for a total cost of $4.5 million. That’s super expensive if we’re talking about fishing  line, but not when it comes to big league relievers expected to close games.

That makes is a low risk, and at the highest end of imaginable performance for Rodney, it’s a contract Minnesota would be happy to pay the man.

When Rodney spoke with reporters on a conference call after he signed, he told us that the Twins had promised him he’d be the closer. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, truthfully, but I did find it odd that they would give such assurances so early in the winter with plenty of good relievers left on the board. I said in a radio interview on 1500ESPN that week, ‘Sorry, Addison Reed, you can still pitch for the Twins but it won’t be in the 9th inning.’

Every joke has a seed of truth…

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.
Salary: $16.75 million over 2 years, per Baseball Prospectus.

Reed is a better reliever than Duke and Rodney, and depending on how you feel about Trevor Hildenberger, the newest free-agent signing could be the best the Twins have. Not every club uses its best reliever in the 9th inning, but I think it’s safe to say that Reed is more trustworthy than Rodney. His salary certainly reflects as much.

Even with guaranteeing Reed more than four times as much as Rodney, though, the Twins are still getting good value on the contract. Wade Davis is getting more per year on his current contract than Reed will make in two seasons with the Twins.

I wrote a series of columns in early December attempting to answer the question “Who will be the next Twins closer?” (Spoiler: I did not peg Rodney.) I included Davis and Reed in in the same column of known commodities expected to get big money on the free-agent market this winter. Reed was good and reliable, I concluded, but if it was going to cost the big bucks to lure him to the Twin Cities, I thought it would be a bad bet for the Twins.

As it turns out, not every good reliever is cashing in big time this winter. For Reed to sign for less than one-third of Davis, I’d say the Twins got a good deal.

Reed doesn’t have a big fastball, but he also doesn’t like walking batters. His 4.9% walk rate ranked 9th among MLB relievers last year. That’s despite a fastball that sits at 92 or 93 mph, as opposed to the 97 mph heaters you’ll see in a lot of bullpens these days.

Reed also spent time in both the American League and National League last year. His 24% strikeout rate would have ranked exactly 50th in the N.L. if he was there for the full season. It would have rated fourth-best among Twins relievers, behind Hildenberger, Michael Tonkin and Ryan Pressly. Of those three only Hildenberger walked hitters less frequently than Reed. And Reed’s swing-and-miss rate of 13.7% would be the best among the bunch from last year.

The biggest problem that jumps out on Reed’s stat page from last year is that 11 of the 306 hitters he faced took him deep. Giving up a few bad home runs can ruin a road trip for a club, or to be more dramatic about it, it can ruin an entire season for a reliever.

Still, Reed was excellent the year before, and 29 years old and on a good contract, it looks like the Twins have made another smart bet.

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