During the 2015 season, few areas were worse off than the Twins bullpen. Minnesota didn't strike anyone out, there were largely without reliable arms, and late game leads were far from safe. Coming into 2016, making an improvement in relief was no doubt a priority, but the execution of that decision seemed to come from different trains of thought.
Now with the 2016 season nearly here, the Twins bullpen has largely been decided. Glen Perkins, Kevin Jepsen, and Trevor May are all locks. Casey Fien was offered a new deal through arbitration, and Michael Tonkin is out of options. Former free agent signee Ricky Nolasco needs a place to pitch, and Minnesota needs another lefty in relief. Outside of the question as to whether it will be Fernando Abad or Taylor Rogers, Paul Molitor's relief corps seems decided upon.
The group assembled in 2016 will be looking to take some significant steps forward. A year ago, Twins relievers struck out an MLB worst 6.85 per nine innings. A 4.20 FIP was among the lower third in the big leagues, and a 1.7 fWAR had the group tied for 7th worst in the majors. Outside of Glen Perkins' first half, and Kevin Jepsen's late season boost, things could have been markedly worse.
So in making the bullpen a priority, Terry Ryan and the Twins needed to fix things. A season ago, they were caught making remarks that the collective media needed to relax, and that things would be just fine. That obviously couldn't have been further from the truth, but those sentiments have not been muttered this time. Instead, the Twins have stood their ground and watched as arms have been signed while they've stood idly by.
In fact, it's their inaction that has brought up the question, just what is the narrative for the Twins relievers in 2016? As Matt Thornton, another lefty, was plucked off the market on an MiLB deal, this comment was offered on Twitter:
If the bullpen is bad this year, Terry Ryan should will deserve all the criticism for hibernating all winter. https://t.co/OT7JIOdYtc— Mike Bates (@MikeBatesSBN) March 3, 2016
The problem is, I'm not sure that's entirely fair.
Without a doubt the Twins stood pat when it came to the bullpen in a larger sense, but in the grand scheme of things, they really didn't. Knowing the club needed a lefty, Ryan went out and nabbed Abad on a minor league deal. An organizational belief that he was tipping his pitches to the tune of a 4.15 ERA a season ago, Abad is just a year removed from a 1.57 ERA and 8.0 K/9. Should he return to any semblance of that, a nominal MiLB deal could end up being the best move of the winter.
Minnesota repeated that same type of acquisition in claiming former Brewers lefty Mike Strong, and targeting Dan Runzler along with Buddy Boshers. The trio no doubt has a significantly lower upside than that of Abad, but Minnesota only needs one of the group to stick.
Then there's the reality that relief arms are actually an area of strength for Ryan at the present time. Mostly on the right side, Minnesota has Alex Meyer, J.T. Chargois, Nick Burdi, and Jake Reed all looking like they should be capable of big league innings this year. Add in lefty Taylor Rogers, and there's plenty of home grown options that have ceilings largely greater than what the market presented.
Back to the point above, how can we actually view a Twins collapse? If things don't work out with Abad, Rogers, or one of the other lefty candidates, what gets said? Should it be that Ryan needed to spend $18 million for three years of Tony Sipp? Maybe $12 million for two years of Antonio Bastardo made sense? The reality is however, that relievers are generally a fickle beast, and something that can be made out of nowhere. Sipp is a couple of years removed from a near 5.00 ERA while Bastardo almost posted a 4.00 mark in 2014.
So, is there a right way or a wrong way to be upset should things crash and burn for the Twins? The short answer is that I don't know. However, I've always been a big proponent of bullpens either being creative, or expensive, the middle ground is an ugly desolate wasteland. Right now, the Twins fall in the former category (with a team like the Yankees being the blueprint for the later).
Ryan didn't go spend on a position (albeit of need), that is often easy to develop, and one with internal options. He's banking on internal evaluations saying that Abad will work out, and that the kids who've been knocking on the door are ready to go. Big contracts in the pen would have no doubt delayed a more deserving arm (Ricky Nolasco anyone?), and it's time the Twins system becomes utilized at the big league level.
Nothing says that Minnesota's relief corps will take a massive step forward in the year ahead. Deciding to go with top prospects and good (low risk) bets though, is a strategy I can applaud. We'll soon see how it plays out, but at the end of the day, I'm not sure too stiff of an argument can be made against the process.