In a lost season, fans naturally start calling for heads to roll and are disappointed when it doesn’t happen. Terry Ryan should go! Paul Molitor should go! Joe Mauer should go! (Don’t even bother, he’s not going anywhere until his contract expires.) Unfortunately when you are 20-43, a couple changes here and there won’t be enough to pull your organization out of the woods. This is something that has been caused by poor decision after poor decision, but that’s a topic for another day.
Instead, I’m looking at a minute change - not one that would turn around the season, but one that could make an incremental improvement. I know, I know, this isn’t what this current iteration of the Twins needs, but it’s something that is good in practice and with nothing to lose, there’s no reason not to do this.
Namely, it’s exactly the same thing that brought Neil Ramirez over to Minnesota and in essence the same way Robbie Grossman made it on to the active roster: the waiver claim. To summarize, every team can put its players on waivers throughout the season. You may remember the Twins doing this with Tommy Milone and Casey Fien earlier this year. Once on waivers, the remaining 29 teams have the opportunity to claim that player. The order is determined by the teams’ records from the same league in ascending order, so the worst team gets first dibs, then the second-worst, and so on. In Milone’s and Fien’s cases, all American League teams had a chance to acquire either of them first. Upon all AL teams passing on them, then the process repeated but with the National League teams. Eventually, the Los Angeles Dodgers were awarded Fien, while none of the other 29 teams were interested in Milone.
For Ramirez, he passed through all of the NL without being claimed, but the Twins were the first team in the American League that had a shot at him with their awful record and they found him to be a good fit for their roster, optioning J.T. Chargois back to the minors in the process. Though Ramirez has had a shaky 2016, he was an excellent reliever for the Cubs in 2014 and (when healthy) in 2015. Between those two seasons, Ramirez had a combined 1.87 ERA and 2.75 FIP with over 10 1/2 strikeouts per 9 innings while allowing just a .193 batting average. Dominant pitcher, for sure.
Okay then, what’s the catch? Why was such an excellent reliever available for the Twins. Well, I already hinted that he wasn’t healthy for all of 2015, specifically due to shoulder inflammation. There’s the potential that something is not fully right with him as his average fastball velocity dropped from 94.3 MPH in his rookie season to 93 MPH last year to 92.1 MPH this season. Although he still possesses the stuff to strike out hitters (his 12.19 K/9 is currently a career high), his control has completely disappeared (eight walks, though two were intentional) and he also has given up four home runs in just over 10 innings pitched. The Cubs gave up on him earlier this season and Ramirez was with the Brewers for all of two appearances before joining the Twins.
This is exactly the type of incremental improvement a team like the Twins should be making. For a team in the playoff race, you may not want to devote a roster spot to a lottery ticket. However, the Twins have nothing to lose and thus can take the chance on someone that has upside. It it works out, the organization has found a late inning reliever with dominant stuff, something they currently lack. If it doesn’t work out, nothing is lost and Chargois or someone else will be recalled to fill the hole.
Why waste time on someone like Ramirez though if he hasn’t looked great thus far? Well, this was why I mentioned Robbie Grossman way at the beginning. Though he wasn’t a waiver claim, he opted out of his minor league contract with the Cleveland Indians and promptly signed with the Twins. Several days later, he was penciled in as the starting left fielder even though his major league track record was mediocre (a career .240/.327/.341 in parts of three seasons with Houston). Suddenly he joined the Twins and has become the hottest hitter in the lineup.
Grossman is beyond what teams hope to find when they make a minor league signing or waiver claim. Ramirez is currently the unknown. These are just two hitters though, and if it were up to me the Twins would be even more liberal in finding similar players as they are designated for assignment or otherwise made available in other fashions.
In my opinion, the Twins are too conservative when it comes to their 25th and 40th roster spots. We’re well aware of how often the team loves to roll with three catchers or 13 pitchers, and if a player gets hurt, often times the team would play shorthanded for up to a week at a time. A reliever just threw 4 innings to save the rest of the ‘pen? Well, he can stay up in the big leagues and will have to rest for three days while the rest of the bullpen picks up the slack.
For a team like the Toronto Blue Jays, that strategy is almost unheard of due to the merry-go-round nature of their roster. For example, they called up former Twin Scott Diamond on Monday. Diamond pitched just one inning in relief and on Tuesday found himself jettisoned from the roster as he was designated for assignment. That’s par for the course for the Jays, where they rotate pitchers in and out as fast as you can blink.
I’ll admit that this is on the opposite end of the spectrum and I’d actually want the Twins to find a happy medium. The Twins seem to stick with players for far too long, the Jays for too little. Granted, the Jays are going with a different strategy, but the Twins have the opportunity in this terrible season to evaluate players they otherwise wouldn’t. As other intriguing players hit the waiver wire, the Twins should continue showing an interest in picking them up in the hopes of finding another Grossman. Ramirez was the perfect example as a player with past success that would be useful if he rediscovered it. Grossman was a guy that had potential but hadn’t found it yet. Others will become available and the Twins should jump on finding those guys.
Again, this strategy wouldn't right the ship for this season, but it’s the way that a team can find its role players as part of its next winning ball club. Plus, we keep complaining about the poor bullpen... add another Ramirez or two and it could quickly become a strength.