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Previewing Baldelli’s bullpen carousel

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How will Rocco Baldelli and Wes Johnson manage the pitching staff?

AP/Paul Sancya

While a 60-game baseball season is a less-than-ideal scenario under the circumstances in which it was adopted, having the ability to speculate about real baseball is certainly a breath of fresh air for us baseball writers. During the abbreviated season, the Twins will battle both the familiar American League Central and the somewhat-familiar National League Central, neither of which contain the New York Yankees. An abbreviated season also has led to somewhat expanded rosters to start the season. For the first two weeks of the season, the Twins will have a 30-man roster, followed by 28 players the next two weeks, and the rosters will return to the newly-customary 26-man roster after that. In a season that will be a sprint much more than a marathon, the Twins will need to find a balance of stretching out their main starters, while also being mindful of the increased importance of each game.

Luckily for the Twins, their new coaching staff, particularly manager Rocco Baldelli and pitching coach Wes Johnson, has shown the ability to think outside of the box and adopt some modern theories. One of the main new pitching methodologies in recent years has been the advent of the “opener,” which is a relief pitcher that actually starts the game. This first reliever can be used with a couple of ideas in mind. First, if a team has a top-heavy lineup, specifically with a lot of bats on one side of the plate, the opener can be used to unleash his best stuff to battle the top of the order one time. After that, a traditional “starter” can be brought in, and if/when that pitcher makes multiple trips through the order, he will face the middle/end of the order more often than the stacked top of the order. Another version of the opener involves the first pitcher making one trip through the batting order, followed by another doing the same, in sort of a “piggybacking” scenario. As a general rule of thumb, a pitcher is more susceptible to allowing runs the more times he faces a lineup. For example, in 2019, MLB batters posted an OPS of .730 the first time facing a pitcher, an OPS of .776 the second time, and an OPS of .803 the third time.

Another interesting caveat to the bullpen usage is the new rule requiring pitchers to face a minimum of three batters or end the inning. A shortened season and new rules surrounding the roster and bullpen should make the roles of Baldelli and Johnson both interesting and vital. On their initial roster release, the Twins listed the pitchers both on their 40-man roster, as well as their “taxi squad,” comprised of minor league players who will be held in a minor-league spring training of sorts. We will focus on the options on the 40-man roster, with the exception of veteran Jhoulys Chacin, who is currently listed as part of the taxi squad. In this exercise, starters Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, and Kenta Maeda will be left out, as they are likely to proceed with a traditional starting pitcher’s role. Also to be left out are relievers Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey, Trevor May, and Sergio Romo, as they will likely comprise the traditional back-of-the-bullpen roles. In this case, we’ll look at the Twins’ options in non-traditional roles (in alphabetical order).

JORGE ALCALA

  • In 2019, Alcala spent time in Double-A, Triple-A, and made a cameo with the Twins in September of 2019. The fireballing righty was acquired as part of the Ryan Pressly trade with Houston, and has since spent significant time as both a starter and a reliever in the minor leagues. Alcala may be unlikely to make the initial 30-man roster, but the Twins won’t hesitate to call on him in a pinch, as he could be useful in either a one-inning or a piggyback opener scenario.
  • Stat to know: 9.5 K/9 in the minor leagues in 2019

HOMER BAILEY

  • A veteran of 13 MLB seasons, Bailey has parlayed his lofty prospect status (Baseball America’s #5 prospect before 2007) into an up-and-down career. If the Twins were in a situation where they had to pencil five starters in stone, Bailey would be in line to be the #4 or #5 starter. In a shortened season, however, Bailey may be a candidate to start behind a one-inning opener.
  • Stats to know: First time facing batters (career): .719 OPS; Second time facing batters (career): .761 OPS

JHOULYS CHACIN

  • Coming off of a nightmare season with the Brewers and Red Sox in which he posted a 6.01 ERA, Chacin was a bargain-bin signing on a minor-league contract for the Twins. Chacin was part of a string of veterans brought in by the Twins in the off season to provide depth to the starting rotation. Chacin is a good candidate to start the season on the roster, as he can provide innings as part of piggyback opener, or as an inning-eating reliever in a lopsided game.
  • Stats to know: Career vs. RHB: .657 OPS; Career vs. LHB: .783 OPS

DAKOTA CHALMERS

  • Acquired in a 2018 trade-deadline deal that sent Fernando Rodney to the Athletics, Chalmers has battled injuries in his time with the Twins’ organization, as he has not pitched more than 35 innings in a season with the Twins. Chalmers also has not pitched above Advanced Single-A, but he required 40-man roster protection from the Rule 5 Draft. He is unlikely to see time with the Twins in 2020, but his position on the 40-man roster makes him an option.
  • Stat to know: 10.7 K/9 innings in his minor league career

TYLER CLIPPARD

  • A veteran of 13 MLB seasons that will be appearing for his 10th MLB team, Clippard is certainly an unconventional modern relief pitcher. His repertoire includes a fastball velocity that averages around 90 MPH, and registers at the 13th percentile of MLB pitchers. His bread-and-butter offering is his changeup, which he threw at a rate of 30.5% in 2019. Clippard uses a movement/finesse approach to rank in the 95%+ percentile in Exit Velocity, Hard Hit Percentage, and Expected Batting Average (xBA). He also boasts a significant reverse split, as the righty is more effective against left-handed batters. Clippard represents an ideal opener to face a lefty-focused top of the order, and he also made three starts as the opener for Cleveland last season.
  • Stats to know: Career vs. RHB: .682 OPS; Career vs. LHB: .587 OPS

RANDY DOBNAK

  • Everyone’s favorite Uber driver used 28.1 innings of effective pitching to vault himself into an unlikely playoff start in Yankee Stadium in 2019. Despite the suspension of Michael Pineda, Dobnak’s role in the starting rotation became murky upon the additions of Homer Bailey, Jhoulys Chacin, and Rich Hill. Dobnak will become an option as part of piggyback combination to start the season, but his spot on the big club may be murky. In a similar fashion to Chacin, he may be a spot-starter/innings-eater type.
  • Stat to know: 52.9% ground ball rate in 2019

JHOAN DURAN

  • Duran was the main chip in the trade that sent Eduardo Escobar to the Diamondbacks, and he has steadily raised his prospect status since joining the Twins’ organization. While he hasn’t reached the big leagues, Duran is protected as part of the Twins’ 40-man roster. Featuring a high-90s fastball and a wipeout splitter, Duran reached Double-A as a 21-year-old in 2019. Questions remain about Duran’s status as a starter long-term, but due to the cancelled minor-league season, Duran may be in line for some innings later in the season if the right situation arises. He presents an interesting option as part of a piggyback combination.
  • Stats to know: 63.3 GB% and 9.97 K per 9 innings in Double-A in 2019

RICH HILL (aka Dick Mountain)

  • Rich Hill, a 40-year-old veteran lefty, was signed in the off season with the thought in mind that he wouldn’t be available until June due to recovery from an injury. As 2020 would have it, Hill seems to be ready to go for the start of the season. Hill has been very effective over the course of the last four season when healthy, posting an ERA of exactly 3.00 in 83 appearances. Due to the shortened season, it is likely that Hill starts the season in a piggyback role until he builds the stamina to resume a normal starter’s workload.
  • Stats to know: 97th percentile in Hard Hit Percentage against; 98th percentile in Exit Velocity against in 2019

ZACK LITTELL

  • Littell was acquired by the Twins from the Yankees after the bizarre week that was the Jaime Garcia era in Minnesota in 2017. After bouncing up-and-down between Triple-A and the big leagues for 2018 and the start of 2019, Littell etched out a role in the Twins’ bullpen as 2019 rolled on, and became a crucial part of the playoff push. Littell is an interesting case, as he may be used both as an opener and a late-inning option for Baldelli and company.
  • Stats to know: Career vs. RHB: .757 OPS; Career vs. LHB: .842 OPS

MICHAEL PINEDA

  • Pineda’s career with the Twins has been full of intrigue, to say the least. He was signed before the 2018 season to a two-year contract, will full knowledge that he would miss his first season. In 2019, Pineda may have been the Twins’ most effective starter in the second half, until he was suspended 60 games for a banned diuretic. He will still serve 39 of those games in 2020, meaning he will miss almost 23 of the regular season. Pineda will start the season on the restricted list, opening a roster spot for someone like Jhoulys Chacin. Upon his return, Pineda seems suited to be part of some sort of piggyback combination, as it seems unlikely he will be able to handle a traditional starter’s workload.
  • Stat to know: 0, the number of MLB relief appearances for Pineda

SEAN POPPEN

  • In 2019, Poppen made his MLB debut for the Twins, but he only appeared in 4 games, as he spent most of the season with Triple-A Rochester. Poppen has spent most of his minor league career as a starting pitcher, as 72 of his 83 career appearances have been starts. For the Twins, however, he will fit a similar mold as Chacin and Dobnak, as he profiles as a piggyback option if he his able to find his way on to the Twins’ roster.
  • Stats to know: 9.0 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9 in minor league career

FERNANDO ROMERO

  • Going into the 2018 season, Romero ranked as MLB.com’s 68th-best prospect in baseball. Romero would have a promising beginning to his MLB career as a starter, but inconsistency would lead to his demotion after a start in July. He would move to the bullpen in 2019, but it turned out to be disappointment for Romero, as he posted a 7.07 ERA for the Twins in 15 appearances. Going into 2020, Romero is out of minor-league options, but he ran into different issues, as visa issues kept Romero out of the “original” spring training. Due to the worldwide pandemic, it remains to be seen when Romero will be able to enter the country, and he will be on the Restricted List until his visa issues are resolved.
  • Stat to know: 7.1 BB/9 in 2019 (league average is 3.29)

DEVIN SMELTZER

  • The Twins’ feel-good story of 2019, Smeltzer was able to provide a spark in 2019 upon his addition to the big club. Over 49 innings with the Twins, Smeltzer pitched to an ERA of 3.86 by using his offspeed repertoire from the left side to keep hitters off-balance. One advantage Smeltzer has for a roster decision is the fact that, in a similar fashion to Rich Hill, he provides a change of pace from the left side. He would be a good candidate to piggyback, potentially as a complement to a hard-throwing lefty. Smeltzer had pretty significant reverse splits in his debut, albeit in a limited sample size.
  • Stats to know: OPS vs. RHB: .753, OPS vs. LHB: .869

CODY STASHAK

  • Stashak was part of the Rochester shuttle for the Twins last year, as he bounced back and forth between Triple-A and the Twins. In his 25 appearances for the Twins, he was effective, posting an ERA of 3.24 with a FIP of 3.00. Stashak has pitched primarily as a reliever since 2018, but he does have limited experience as a short-inning opener. He could certainly comprise that role in 2020 with the Twins.
  • Stat to know: 12.24 K/9 in Triple-A in 2019

LEWIS THORPE

  • As previously brilliantly covered here at Twinkie Town, Thorpe’s debut ERA of 6.18 was a mirage of sorts. The Aussie lefthander possesses power stuff from the left side, which is only matched by late-inning powerhouse Taylor Rogers. Thorpe will likely be a fringe roster addition, as he has yet to etch out a defined role in his career. He does, however, present an option as either a piggyback complement, or someone to follow up after an opener. Thorpe will certainly see some time with the Twins in 2020.
  • Stats to know: 2 HRs allowed on changeups in 2019 (57 pitches); 1 HR allowed on all other pitchers (435 pitches)

MATT WISLER

  • Once a much-heralded prospect, Wisler has had a difficult time finding his footing in the MLB, as he has posted an ERA of 5.20 in his career. The Twins were able to claim Wisler off of waivers from the Mariners, but that in no way guarantees Wisler a spot on the Twins. Wes Johnson and company seem to view Wisler as a reclamation project, as his raw stuff has the potential to be effective. The Twins will have to figure where and how Wisler fits on the roster, but he has starting experience, and he should be capable of providing innings in a variety of roles for the Twins.
  • Stat to know: 70.5%, the percentage of pitches that were sliders from Wisler in 2019

It remains to be seen how the Twins’ roster will shake out when (if?) the season starts, but I’m sure that Rocco Baldelli and Wes Johnson have gotten together virtually like Pinky and the Brain to form a plan to take over the MLB. There is certain to be a lot of roster movement, especially with the rosters shrinking twice in the first month. Who do you think will make the roster, and who will make the biggest impact in the shortened 2020 season?