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The Twins bullpen that could have been

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The Twins have plenty of former players littered around the major leagues. Where are they now?

88th MLB All-Star Game Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

About a month ago, a coworker of mine was surprised to find out that the Twins had signed Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer, and Justin Morneau as special assistants for the organization. Likewise, I’m sure there have been plenty of times where you’ve wondered what happened to similar Twins players that you used to know. Lucky for you, I did all the work for you regarding some former Twins pitchers. I looked entirely at pitchers that had been with the organization for several years - sorry, Blaine Boyer - and the entire group could form a pretty solid relief corp on their own.

Pat Neshek

Career numbers: 2.75 ERA, 3.50 FIP, .200 AVG, 25.1% K%, 7.1% BB%

Years active with Twins: Five (one on DL from Tommy John surgery)

Departed: Claimed off waivers by the Padres prior to the 2011 season

Reason for leaving: Diminished velocity and loss of control due to Tommy John surgery

Where he is now: Phillies, currently on the 10-day DL (shoulder strain)

I have to start with my favorite in this bunch. His funky sidearm was fun to watch, especially when the Twins were an organization that seemed to shy away from funky deliveries. He debuted with a bang in 2006 and 2007, recording consecutive seasons with an ERA below 3 as he became a valuable member of the Twins bullpen. A torn UCL derailed his career in 2008 and had a dustup with the organization in 2010 due to a misdiagnosed hand injury. Neshek struggled to recover from Tommy John surgery as he lost 4 MPH off his fastball and walked one fewer batter than he struck out in the first season of Target Field, causing the Twins to place him on waivers after the year was over.

It took some time for Neshek to regain his old form. The 2011 year wasn’t much better as he was still averaging just 86 MPH on his fastball and his control continued to be shaky. The 2012 season came with Neshek a member of the Orioles, but it was a trade and immediate promotion by the Athletics where he showed he was back. Though his fastball had returned to its 89 MPH average from his second major league season, he upped his slider usage from 40-50% of the time to over 80% of his offerings. He pitched adequately for the A’s, then took the final step forward with the Cardinals in 2014, pitching so well that he made the NL All-Star team. Neshek has remained a strong relief pitcher into his mid-30s while making stops in Houston, Philadelphia, and Colorado, and he rejoined the Phillies this offseason. Fun fact: I learned from his Wikipedia page that Neshek chose to wear #93, a number that has never been worn in the MLB regular season. Sad fact: Neshek’s on the DL for a shoulder strain and if it’s serious enough, he won’t get to wear #93 in the regular season.

Brian Duensing

Career numbers: 3.99 ERA, 4.01 FIP, .267 AVG, 16.2% K%, 7.4% BB%

Years active with Twins: Seven

Departed: Free agency, signed to a minor league contract by the Royals prior to the 2016 season

Reason for leaving: Ineffectiveness

Where he is now: Chicago Cubs, currently active

Like Neshek, Duensing left his mark over his first two major league seasons. A swingman, he shifted back and forth between the rotation and bullpen after his debut in 2009 and was effective in both roles. However, he started to struggle in 2011 and the Twins decided in 2013 that Duensing would become a full-time reliever. His ERA was marred due to him being a little too hittable during that first season, and his strikeout rate absolutely tanked in 2014 and 2015 (14.4% and 11.5%, respectively). He struggled to get lefties out and I feel the organization let him face far too many righties, so the Twins chose not to offer him a contract after the 2015 season.

Duensing was signed by the Royals but never appeared in the majors for them, then joined the Orioles in late May. They had him pitch 13 13 innings in 2016, and his odyssey took him to the north side of Chicago for the 2017 season. Here, Duensing experienced a renaissance as his strikeout rate spiked to 23.7% and recorded a 2.74 ERA over 62 13 innings. The Cubs ended up re-signing Duensing to a two-year contract, so he’s endured a similar career as Neshek.

Anthony Swarzak

Career numbers: 4.22 ERA, 4.10 FIP, .265 AVG, 17.0% K%, 6.8% BB%

Years active with Twins: Six (spent one year in the minor leagues)

Departed: Outrighted, signed to a minor league contract by Cleveland prior to the 2015 season

Reason for leaving: Ineffectiveness

Where he is now: New York Mets, just hit the 10-day DL with a strained oblique

Where Duensing was like Neshek, Swarzak was similar to Duensing. Also a swingman, Swarzak bounced around in a variety of roles, never fully solidifying what he could do on the pitching staff. He didn’t strike out many hitters, but wasn’t particularly deceptive, either, as he primarily threw a low-90s fastball and a low- to mid-80s slider. It kind of felt that Swarzak was the type of pitcher that just threw it over the plate and made the hitter get himself out.

The Twins outrighted Swarzak off the 40-man roster following the 2014 season and he elected free agency. Upon signing with Cleveland, he put up a year (3.38 ERA, 3.06 FIP) that was similar to his 2013 in Minnesota (2.91 ERA, 3.28 FIP), though it came in far fewer innings and with a much better strikeout rate (21.3% compared to 17.8% in 2013). After a detour to South Korea to pitch in the KBO, he joined the Yankees in 2014 and started throwing harder, though he didn’t see any positive results from the added velocity. However, his breakout came last season with the White Sox as he teamed up with David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle to form a formidable back end of their bullpen. His fastball was 2 MPH faster, his slider added about 3 MPH, and he started striking out nearly three out of every 10 batters he faced. He was traded midseason to Milwaukee, continued to dominate, and earned a two-year, $14 million contract with the Mets before the 2018 season. He’s made two appearances this year before hitting the DL with a strained oblique suffered against the Cardinals.

Liam Hendriks

Career numbers: 4.78 ERA, 3.88 FIP, .276 AVG, 20.7% K%, 6.1% BB%

Years active with Twins: Three

Departed: Designated for assignment, claimed off waivers by the Cubs

Reason for leaving: Ineffectiveness, 40-man roster spot was needed after signing Phil Hughes

Where he is now: Oakland Athletics, active

I think you’ve noticed a common theme here. Pitcher either used to be good or wasn’t ever particularly good, was let go by the Twins, and then became better elsewhere. The same is true for Hendriks, but I think this one stings a little harder for several reasons. Neshek was let go because he wasn’t recovering from Tommy John surgery. Duensing and Swarzak weren’t anything more than middle relievers and were getting expensive through arbitration. Hendriks definitely struggled in his three years in Minnesota, but he certainly wasn’t expensive as he was still going through pre-arbitration. Plus, he was just shy of his 24th birthday when the Twins cut him for Hughes, who has given the Twins one excellent season, one adequate but still disappointing season, and two horrendous, injury-plagued seasons.

Continuing with our theme, Hendriks didn’t throw hard and couldn’t rack up any strikeouts. After getting claimed by the Cubs, he then joined Baltimore and finally settled in Toronto for the 2014 season. His initial stay wasn’t very long as he made three poor starts for the Jays, then was traded with catcher Erik Kratz to Kansas City in exchange for another former Twin, Danny Valencia. Hendriks had six adequate appearances for the Royals, and the following season he found himself back in Toronto.

This is where I’m particularly frustrated with how the Twins handled Hendriks. At this point (Opening Day 2015), he was just 26 years old. With a second crack at Hendriks, the Blue Jays put him into the bullpen and he finally thrived. His fastball velocity jumped over 4 MPH, his slider and curveball also gained a few ticks, and surprisingly his good control became elite. When the dust settled, Hendriks had a 2.92 ERA, 2.14 FIP, and struck out 27% of his batters faced while walking just 4% of them. This performance earned him a trade to Oakland, where he has spent the last 2+ years. His ERAs have been around 4 in Oakland, but his secondary numbers have been good and he should continue being a setup guy for the A’s this year.

Brandon Kintzler

Career numbers: 3.25 ERA, 3.68 FIP, .260 AVG, 16.6% K%, 6% BB%

Years active with Twins: One and a half

Departed: Traded to Washington for minor league pitcher Tyler Watson

Reason for leaving: Twins were selling at the trade deadline

Where he is now: Re-signed with Washington in the offseason, active

Hey, finally we deviate from our theme! I included Kintzler more because of the recency of him being a Twin, and here we have a pitcher that actually experienced his struggles elsewhere before finding his footing in Minnesota. A part-timer for four seasons and a mainstay for two in the Milwaukee bullpen, injuries took their toll on him and he lost 2 MPH off his sinking fastball in 2015. The Twins signed him to a minor league contract for the 2016 season and he righted his ship, eventually taking the closing role away from Kevin Jepsen.

Kintzler performed admirably for the Twins, being one of the few pitchers that found success in spite of a lack of swing-and-miss stuff. When the Twins started to struggle at the trade deadline and the Nationals needed to fortify their bullpen, he found himself traded to Washington along with Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson. Kintzler was a free agent this offseason and although the Twins had a little interest in re-signing him, ultimately he chose to return to the Nationals for 2018.

Luke Bard

Years with Twins (minors): Six (missed one season due to injury)

Departed: Left off 40-man roster this past offseason, selected by the Angels in the Rule 5 draft

Reason for leaving: Age (27 years old), I guess, and the Twins having a plethora of other options

Where he is now: Los Angeles Angels, active

A curious choice to leave off the 40-man roster, the former first round pick excelled at virtually every stop in the minor leagues. However, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine left Bard unprotected for the Rule 5 draft, where he was selected by the Angels. In spring training, Statcast lauded the spin rate on his 4-seam fastball, claiming that his fastball already reached the highest single-game spin rate recorded in the Statcast era. Why is this important? Spin on a 4-seamer invokes the Magnus effect, which causes the ball to “rise” (or more accurately, it doesn’t drop due to gravity as much as it normally would). In theory, this means that Bard should experience more success despite having a fastball that averages 92 MPH. He has made two appearances with the Angels this year, and part of me thinks that if the Twins front office would have kept Bard if they knew about his elite spin in the minor leagues. Instead, we have to watch him pitch on the West Coast now.

J.T. Chargois

Years with Twins (minors): Six (missed nearly three seasons due to injuries)

Departed: Claimed off waivers last offseason by the Dodgers

Reason for leaving: Twins hoped his recent elbow problem would allow them to sneak him through waivers

Where he is now: Los Angeles Dodgers, active

A second-round pick back in 2012, Chargois also dominated every step of the minor leagues. However, he had multiple elbow problems, including one that resulted in Tommy John surgery in 2013 that also led to him missing the 2014 season. He seemed to get back on track in 2015 and 2016, moving all the way from High-A up to the major leagues. His debut was decent, but he found himself back in the minors to start the 2017 season. However, he was once again plagued by an elbow injury and though he didn’t undergo surgery, he did miss nearly the entire season.

The Twins hoped that his elbow problems would scare off other teams, but the Dodgers didn’t care and ended up claiming Chargois off waivers. He missed the beginning of spring training but impressed the organization enough to make it on to their Opening Day roster, making two appearances as well. His fastball and slider velocity is down 1 MPH and 2 MPH from 2016, respectively, but he’s still hitting 95 MPH with regularity. This looks like a steal for the Dodgers and I’m sure we’ll greatly miss Chargois.

Others

Buddy Boshers was claimed off waivers by the Astros and will start the season at Triple-A. Nik Turley was claimed off waivers by the Pirates, but then was suspended 80 games for PEDs. Randy Rosario was claimed off waivers early in the offseason by the Cubs and will be in Triple-A. Ryan O’Rourke was outrighted at the end of the 2017 season, elected free agency, and then signed a minor league contract with the Orioles. He is still recovering from Tommy John surgery. Michael Tonkin was sold to the Nippon Ham Fighters in the NPB. No word yet on if he’s expected to fill the hole created by Shohei Ohtani coming stateside. Similarly, Dillon Gee is also in Japan for 2018 as he joined the Chunichi Dragons. Finally, Hector Santiago rejoined the White Sox on a minor league contract and pitched his way onto the Opening Day roster, where he will work as a long reliever and possible swingman.