Lester Oliveros is an interesting player. He came to the Twins along with Cole Nelson in the trade that sent Delmon Young to the Tigers, way back in August of 2011. Nelson actually played with the St. Paul Saints in 2014, which is fun, but he obviously played no role after coming over from Detroit after floundering in Fort Myers in 2012. Oliveros, meanwhile, has walked a different path.
Oliveros had made nine appearances for the Tigers in July, and after he arrived in Minnesota was called up near the end of August. He made ten relief appearances for the Twins, called it a season, and we fast-forward to 2012. He made just one appearance in the Majors that year, in June, but he actually started the season all the way back down in Double-A. It just felt odd, considering his 19 MLB appearances the year prior. While he did make Triple-A by mid-May, it was something of which I took note.
After missing most of 2013 recovering from Tommy John surgery, 2014 saw him once again start the year at Double-A. That's not entirely surprising considering he was rehabbing from one of the game's most annoying and prolific injuries, but 2014 was his age-26 season. Minnesota promoted him at the end of June, and Oliveros finished what can only be described as a comeback in a season marking his intentions.
Between Double and Triple-A this year, Oliveros made 50 appearances and pitched 65.2 innings. He surrendered just 44 hits, struck out 88 batters, and didn't struggle with control like pitchers sometimes do in their first full season post-Tommy John. Oliveros was dominant, not allowing a single home run en route to a 1.64 ERA.
In seven September appearances with the Twins, he was blasted in his first two outings. He logged just one out in each of the two trips, giving up three runs on a pair of homers in his debut and giving up two more runs on two hits and a pair of walks in trip number two. The good news is that he did settle down after that, striking out five in 5.2 innings, walking one and giving up just one hit.
The highlight for Oliveros might not even be his incredible minor league season, however. He threw the only 97+ mph pitch for the Twins in all of 2014.
Twins pitchers threw ONE fastball 97+ this year. It was Lester Oliveros. pic.twitter.com/9Vz1lc7hr5— Parker Hageman (@ParkerHageman) October 29, 2014
Caleb Thielbar, Michael Tonkin, Ryan Pressly, Stephen Pryor, Anthony Swarzak, Brian Duensing
It feels like the non-tendering of Anthony Swarzak and Brian Duensing is a foregone conclusion, but the Twins don't always play by the rules we think they should. Similarly, we could also include some of the starter surplus on this list: Trevor May, Alex Meyer, Tommy Milone, Mike Pelfrey, etc. But for the sake of our own sanity, we're going to put him up against the non-Perkins/Fien portion of the bullpen.
So the question really is: how many of the above players could make the bullpen? If we assume Glen Perkins and Casey Fien are givens, plus two of the "rotation surplus", a seven-man bullpen means three of those players above would be needed to fill out the relief corps.
Oliveros is still under team control, and at the earliest will be eligible for arbitration in 2018.
What's his role for the 2015 team?
Thielbar (28 years old in 2015), Tonkin (25), and Pressly (26) all have a good deal of experience in the Twins' bullpen. They're also all under team control. Thielbar and Tonkin both have very solid minor league careers, and as a left-handed pitcher it would seem that Thielbar is a given.
Tonkin could start the year back in Triple-A, but he owned minor league hitters in 2014 and would get a long, hard look in spring training. Pressly, meanwhile, has given Minnesota 105 innings of 3.60 ERA baseball in two years of relief. So what could Oliveros bring to the bullpen that those three pitchers couldn't, keeping in mind we're purposely ignoring both Duensing and Swarzak?
Namely: the potential for dominance. Oliveros throws serious heat, and can make batters swing and miss. That's the key, because as nice as velocity is, we've seen relievers who can throw through a brick wall but can't miss a baseball. Jim Hoey will be one of the more painful examples. If Oliveros, who will be 27 in May, has potential to give the Minnesota bullpen some back-of-the-bullpen stuff in the middle innings, that's going to be very difficult to ignore.
If it isn't obvious by now, the Twins have a great deal of pitching depth on both the rotation and bullpen sides of the coin. Don't excuse depth for quality, but in terms of the bullpen that's certainly the case. Paul Molitor and the brain trust will have plenty of good options from which to choose.
No matter what happens, the Twins will leave a deserving pitching off of the roster in 2015. I'd like to think that Oliveros, with his gifts and the season he had in 2014, would have a leg up on the competition, but we also know that the organization can sometimes reward loyalty and experience, and for that reason it would be a surprise (albeit a pleasant one) if Oliveros gets the nod over Thielbar, Tonkin, or Pressly when the club leaves Fort Myers at the end of March.