The Minnesota Twins might actually have one of the best bullpens in baseball, at least on paper. Right now most of the country hasn’t heard of many of the pitchers in that pen, but don’t be shocked if they show up in a big way this season.
The bulk of the bullpen basically sounds like any stereotypical group of guys born in the late-80s and early-90s: Tyler, Tyler, Taylor, and Trevor. This is a group with more experience, and more things going for them than the Twins have rolled out in recent years.
Tyler Clippard is a newcomer to the Twins, and is probably the best-known on this list, outside of Minnesota. That’s because the first pitch he throws in Minnesota will mean that he’s pitched for a full third of Major League Baseball teams. He’s accrued 15.1 bWAR in his 12 MLB seasons, and averaged a 3.14 ERA and 3.88 FIP during that time. Outside of 2012 and 2015, Clippard has been primarily used in a non-closer role, picking up single-digit saves each year. Still, he provides an effective right-handed transition to the Twins highest-leverage pitchers (Taylor Rogers and probably Sergio Romo.) Last season, with the Spiders, Clippard threw 62 innings, and despite a drop in his K/9, held opponents to a 2.90 ERA. He did so by keeping his WHIP very low—0.85—a career best. Basically, he let guys hit lots and lots of fly balls off him, but kept most of them in the park. 55.9 percent of batted balls off Clippard were considered a flyball, but with only a 9.4 HR/FB ratio. Pitching in front of the vaunted Twins outfield should serve him well, as nothing falls but raindrops. More concerning might be the amount of batters who hit to the pull side against him, as that likely means balls headed towards Target Field’s right field overhang.
The other Tyler in the bullpen, Tyler Duffey, is no newcomer, as he’s spent his entire career in the Twins organization. For as bad as Duffey has been in the past, especially 2018, his 2019 was a very solid season, and got better as the season progressed. Duffey held opponents to .157/.223/.245 in the second half of 2019, and reached 14.4 K/9 after the All Star break. First half Duffey was an effective pitcher, but second half Duffey was elite, and in a reasonable sample size of 57 total innings pitched. On the rare occasion that Duffey did let an opponent hit the ball, he saw an almost-even split of grounders and flies, so hopefully the improved infield defense will work in his favor. If he continues at the pace he ended 2019, look for Rocco Baldelli to turn to him in the seventh and eighth innings of tight games.
Taylor, as differentiated from Tyler (I’m telling you guys, they’re not interchangeable names!) in this case refers to Taylor Rogers, who has become a shutdown left-handed closer for the Twins, in the footsteps of Glen Perkins. Rogers saved thirty games for the 2019 Twins, pitched 69 innings (nice) and held his ERA down to 2.61. Rogers, like Clippard and Duffey, basically just doesn’t let guys get on base, with a 1.00 2019 WHIP actually being a hair higher than his 2018 number (which was 0.95.) He has nasty strikeout stuff too, with a K/9 over ten, and a high proclivity for wormburners, as half of balls hit against him were on the ground. Adding Donaldson at the hot corner should help Rogers pick up an extra out here-and-there.
The last member of our all-T-club is Trevor May. May could quite possibly be one of the more recognizable players in the MLB to non-baseball fans, as he also has a very successful career in streaming video games. The MLB should probably be using guys like him to generate new fans, instead of changing the whole game, but that’s a rant for another time. On the field, May missed all of 2017 due to Tommy John Surgery, but made a solid comeback in 2018 before turning it up a notch in 2019. The 2019 version of May pitched 64 innings, and just like Duffey, turned it up in the second half. After the break, May was also virtually un-hittable. All opponents could muster against him was .159/.220/.354, and he struck out nearly five guys for every walk he issued. Oddly enough, peripheral stats like K/9 and BB/K suggest that May was a better pitcher in 2018 than 2019—or in other words, there is every chance he continues his success. As another right-handed option in the seventh or eighth innings, the Twins could do a lot worse than May.
Finally we get to guys whose names don’t start with the letter T. Sergio Romo was a late addition to the Twins last season, coming over from Miami at the deadline. He re-signed this off season, and reportedly loves Minnesota. As a righty with 129 career saves, he will likely be used as the complement to Rogers, picking up the highest leverage innings. He’s been on some very good teams, including three World Series appearances, and has been elected to the All Star game. Obviously he is much less unheralded than his stablemates. His 2019 looks good as a whole with a 3.43 ERA in sixty innings, but in the twenty-two innings after he was traded to Minnesota, he was, again better as the season wore on.
That makes five relievers, all of whom should be considered a “lock” for the bullpen. With the Twins likely to carry the maximum of thirteen pitchers, and five starters, that means another three spots available for a long reliever and a couple of low-leverage arms. Due to his lack of options, Matt Wisler is probably the favorite for one of these spots.
Wisler is another newcomer to the Twins, being picked up off waivers from Seattle this winter. He has a fairly decent draft pedigree, as he was a seventh round pick by San Diego back in 2011. He’s pitched in parts of four major league seasons, and the Twins are his fifth team. He’s never quite put it all together, but there are things to like in some of his peripheral stats. A K/9 of eleven last year is encouraging, although his career figure is only seven. He put together a WHIP of 1.25 in 2019 as well. He’s been lower at points in his career, but also struck out next-to-nobody in those seasons. If he can combine the two traits, its easy to see why the Twins were intrigued. A fairly high BABIP figure, and a FIP significantly lower than his ERA suggest he might also benefit from playing in front of a good defense, and slight flyball tendencies also makes Minnesota a decent fit for him. If he is being used as a sixth inning bridge, or in mop up duty, the Twins could do a lot worse than take a flyer on Wisler.
The final two bullpen spots have a lot of options competing to head north. Not all of them will start the season with the Twins, but all will likely make an appearance at some point in 2020. Rookie starters Randy Dobank, Lewis Thorpe, Devin Smeltzer, and Sean Poppen could all transition to a long-relief role if needed. For that matter, Jhoulys Chacin and even Homer Bailey could pitch out of the pen at some point, if they lose out on a rotation spot. The Twins have some more intriguing options I’d like to see them try first though.
There are four pitchers in camp this spring with significant experience in a MLB bullpen. Three are lefties, and given the general right-handedness of the bullpen, it would be no shock to see at least one of them with the big club. Since the LOOGY is a thing of the past, platoon splits may be helpful here. Also, any of these guys would need a 40-man roster spot, but the Twins have a couple free (Raley’s from the Maeda trade, and Hill’s, once he moves to the 60-day IL.)
Caleb Thielbar, aka Meat Raffle, is an old friend. He pitched almost 100 innings with the Twins between 2013 and 2015, when he made his last MLB appearance. His career stats look very good, but he was much worse in his sophomore season than he was as a rookie. Still, those numbers wouldn’t be a problem for a guy used in low-leverage situations. In 2015, he only pitched five innings, but collected five strikeouts and gave up five hits. He was betrayed by his teammates in that small sample: a 5.40 ERA and 1.13 FIP makes that much clear. Thielbar basically doesn’t have a statistically significant platoon split.
The other veteran I think the Twins might turn to is an old enemy, as Blaine Hardy comes over from Detroit. Hardy has accrued 4.3 bWAR in a six year career, and managed to be worth 0.4 bWAR on a really, really bad Tiger team in 2019. Hardy’s stats suggest he has been basically the stereotype of a serviceable middle reliever, and there is no reason to believe he couldn’t fill that role for the Twins. He has allowed right handed batters on base more often then lefties, but slugging is a wash on handedness, and his numbers against righties really aren’t unacceptable either.
Danny Coulombe is the third southpaw in camp. Just like the others, he’s been around a few years, and he has pitched for both the Dodgers and the As. His stats also scream “middle reliever.” Danny has a very slight, but not strong platoon split.
The final “veteran” is righty Ryan Garton, who has pitched in 64 MLB innings across three years and two teams. He looks like roster filler for Rochester at this point, but Spring Training is the time of hope eternal.
The non-roster veterans have stiff competition from younger relievers as well. Both Zack Littell and Cody Stashak pitched well down the stretch in 2019, and both have options—which the flexibility-obsessed Twins might prioritize. Littell pitched 37 innings with a 2.68 ERA, before getting blown up by the Yankees in the playoffs. Stashak pitched 29 innings with a 3.24 ERA, and slightly better peripheral numbers than Littell. Both are small samples, but offer plenty of reasons a good spring would earn them a spot at the bottom of the bullpen pecking order. A few other prospects on the NRI could theoretically challenge for a spot, but have a very steep climb to get there. Charlie Barnes, Sam Clay, and Edwar Colina will all be in camp, but aren’t really in this conversation. Jake Reed and Griffin Jax have a better shot, but are also still outside-looking-in at this point.
Given the strength at the top of the bullpen, and the numerous options at the bottom, there is a very good chance the Twins relievers are among the class of the league this season. If the starters can get into the sixth inning with a lead, I just can’t see this group letting very many games out of control from there. In fact, I’ll say it—the bullpen could be really good this year.