Despite fantastic numbers in Triple-A this year and a strong 2017 in the big leagues last season, Alan Busenitz has had trouble getting back to Minnesota. On Tuesday, his path to the show was further complicated, after the Twins signed veteran reliever Matt Belisle.
Belisle, of course, was fantastic down the stretch for the Twins last season, serving as their closer during the team’s two-month, post-trade deadline run to the postseason. He had a 2.11 ERA after June 1 last year, and became one of Paul Molitor’s most dependable arms. It’s fair to say Belisle helped save a Twins’ bullpen that was sub-par before the trade deadline, and got worse after losing Brandon Kintzler to Washington.
It’s also fair to say some of Belisle’s peripheral numbers suggested regression was coming, and that likely played a role in the Twins’ decision to not retain him in the offseason. Another reason was the influx of young, promising arms in their system.
Alan Busenitz is among the most promising of the bunch. Last season, Busenitz had a 1.78 ERA at Triple-A Rochester, and a 1.99 ERA in the big leagues. Busenitz, along with Trevor Hildenberger, gradually earned the trust of Paul Molitor last year, and was pitching in high-leverage situations by the end of the season, including the wild card game against the Yankees.
Even with his success, it wasn’t a shock that he didn’t make the team out of spring training this year. He had options remaining, while players like Ryan Pressly and Tyler Kinley didn’t. (Kinley, as a Rule 5 selection, technically has options, but they can’t be used until next year). The expectation was Busenitz would still see plenty of time in the big leagues, and when he was called up in mid-April, there seemed to be a good chance he’d stay up.
Instead, he got sent down quickly, and has been languishing in Rochester ever since, where he currently has a 1.32 ERA, 31 strikeouts and five walks in 27.1 innings.
Despite the bullpen struggling this season, there haven’t been many openings for Busenitz. Trevor Hildenberger and Matt Magill—two relievers with options—have earned their spots on the roster. Kinley was sent back to Miami. Taylor Rogers has struggled and has options, but he’s one of just two lefties in the ‘pen. Everyone else has to be kept on the roster, or be exposed to waivers.
This brings us to the Belisle signing. The Twins felt they needed an eight-man ‘pen, and signed Belisle to be that final man. This, despite his struggles this year with Cleveland, who let him go even though they have the worst bullpen ERA in the big leagues.
The buzzword from the Twins around the signing was “leadership,” and that shouldn’t be discounted. Like Craig Breslow last year, there’s value in having veterans like Belisle around who can help young players, and that value can’t always be quantified. It’d be foolish to be so analytically-inclined as to think it’s not a smart idea to bring in veteran leaders who may bring more off the field than on it. It matters, and from that perspective the signing makes sense.
What also matters, though, is rewarding young players who are a potential part of your future with call-ups they deserve, and giving them time to develop in the big leagues. Busenitz is a young arm who has nothing left to prove at Triple-A, and needs to face big league hitters. Is Belisle’s mentorship worth sacrificing Busenitz’s development? For a Twins team that’s building for the future while still trying to compete this year, it would seem to make sense to give talented arms with a track record the big league time they need to continue getting better.
One area of presumed strength heading into this season was the organization’s starting pitching depth. Fernando Romero, Stephen Gonsalves, Adalberto Mejia, Zack Littell and Aaron Slegers were—and still are–young arms on the rise. Ervin Santana and Trevor May were working their way back from injury as the 2018 campaign began, expected back by the end of May.
Romero, of course, has mostly pitched well since arriving in the big leagues at the beginning of May. The rest of the group has been a bit of a mixed bag.
Gonsalves has been up-and-down at Triple-A this year. At times he’s been dominant. In his five best starts, he’s given up a combined one earned run over 30 innings. Other times he’s struggled, including a start on June 11 in which he gave up nine earned runs over four innings while struggling with control. Walks have been an issue for Gonsalves this season, which is out of character for what he’s done throughout his career. Certainly, there’s still a lot to like with the young left-hander, and the guess here is once his control returns he’ll be back to putting up the dominant numbers he has in the past.
Littell and Slegers have both been solid, racking up quality innings. The two right-handers have an ERA around 3.50. Littell had a rough big league debut, but the 22-year-old projects to be a mid to back of the rotation starter in the big leagues, with four pitches and outstanding control. Slegers may serve as more of a swing man/long reliever in the majors.
Mejia has been a bit of a lost man this season, after making 21 starts for the Twins last year and pitching reasonably well in his rookie year. A blister issue caused him to miss more than a month in 2018, and so his season didn’t fully get going until late-May. Since his return, though, he’s pitched really well. In five starts, he has a 2.63 ERA, 27 strikeouts and seven walks in 27 innings. In his last three starts, as the organization’s ramped up his pitch count, he’s been able to pitch through the sixth inning.
The southpaw came to the Twins two seasons ago as a Top-100 prospect, and he still has the potential to be a back-end starter in the big leagues. With a few more good starts, he’ll vault himself back in the conversation as a rotation option in the second half of the season.
Santana and May have struggled coming back from injury. Santana was shut down after two rehab starts, and is only throwing ‘pens in Fort Myers. May has made eight minor league appearances—the first four as a starter and the last four as a reliever. He was activated from the 60-day DL and optioned to Rochester, where he spent most of his rehab. He’s since landed on the D.L. there with right shoulder inflammation.
The hope for the Twins is that Santana can get back before the deadline, if for no other reason than to build his value as a trade chip. May figures to be an important part of the future. The most recent trip to the DL is a bit concerning, but being cautious with the hard-throwing, talented right-hander is a wise approach as he continues to work his way back from Tommy John surgery.
Outfield prospect LaMonte Wade finally got a well-deserved promotion to Triple-A Rochester last week, after hitting .298/.393/.444 in 46 games with Double-A Chattanooga. Early on in Triple-A, he hasn’t hit for a high average (.222) or power (one extra base hit), but does have his typical .400 OBP.
Wade’s an on-base machine who’s showing some pop this year, hitting seven home runs in Double-A before his promotion. If he can repeat his Double-A numbers in Triple-A, it’s a decent bet he’ll be in Minnesota by season’s end, with a good chance to make the club next year as a possible fourth outfielder.