The Minnesota Twins suffered from numerous bullpen meltdowns over the course of their precipitous fall from first to third place last summer.
As detailed previously, yours truly is skeptical in the front office’s apparent confidence level in the relief corps.
In short, the bullpen is the area that front offices generally believe they can upgrade at the trade deadline, and Twins brass surely believes that last year’s group underperformed. There should be some progression to the mean, and full seasons in higher-leverage roles from the likes of Jhoan Duran, Jovani Moran, and Jorge Alcala will certainly list the baseline for the Twins’ bullpen.
However, there are still some relief pitchers on the free-agent market that have yet to find a home. Let’s take a quick spin through the available options.
The Minnesota native has been a hot topic this week, as Darren Wolfson of SKOR North reported that the Twins are interested in his services.
Hand, a lefty, is a three-time All-Star, most recently as the primary closer for Cleveland in 2019. While still largely effective over the 2021 (split between the Nationals, Mets, and Blue Jays) and 2022 (Phillies) campaigns, there are some signs that the about-to-be 33-year-old is aging.
In short, Hand is missing fewer bats, inducing just a 7.3% swing-and-miss rate and a 19.2% strikeout rate in 2022. Hand’s K/9 mark stood at 12.2 during his five-year peak from 2016-2020, which also saw him make those three All-Star teams. Since 2021, his K/9 has dropped to 8.1.
Still, Hand induced weak contact last year, allowing a hard-hit rate of just 27.3% — his best mark since 2018. For the Twins, it’s probably a matter of whether or not that metric was a bit fluky in 2022, or if Hand has perhaps discovered a way to induce softer contact as he enters the twilight of his career. There’s also the postseason experience factor, as Hand has pitched in 10 career playoff games including two World Series appearances last year with the Phillies.
The Twins bullpen currently has Caleb Thielbar and Moran from the left side, both of whom posted superior strikeout and hard-hit rates than Hand last season.
Veteran lefthander Will Smith is also a former All-Star closer, making the Mid-Summer Classic back in 2019 with the San Francisco Giants. He was also the closer on the World Series Champion Atlanta Braves in 2021.
His strikeout rate dipped slightly and the hard-hit rate climbed a bit last year in a season split between the Braves and Houston Astros. Similar to Hand, Smith does not throw particularly hard but there have also been no signs of loss in velocity for Smith as of yet, either.
Smith would bring a minuscule walk rate, which is the main issue with Moran thus far in his minimal experience at the big-league level.
Indeed, there’s something to be said for the amount of postseason experience that Smith would bring, having won rings each of the last two years and pitching in the playoffs in each of the last three seasons and four of the last five — especially when the Twins have precious little postseason experience populating the high-leverage roles in their bullpen.
Zack Britton was arguably the best reliever in baseball for a two-year stretch back in 2015-16 and remained dominant for several years following with both the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees. He struggled in 2021 before undergoing Tommy John’s surgery late in the year. Britton returned for three games late in 2022 but went back on the injured list with arm issues. He is apparently healthy and ready to go for the season, recently holding a showcase with six teams in attendance, although that group did not include Minnesota.
Britton is another lefthander, and the injury issues combined with a dip in velocity make him a risky proposition.
Corey Knebel is another former All-Star, achieving that level back in 2017 when he was the closer for the Milwaukee Brewers. After a rocky 2018 ended in Tommy John’s surgery and a missed 2019 campaign, Knebel was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers following an unsuccessful 2020 season.
Knebel was fine in L.A. in 2021 and decent with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2022, although his hard-hit rate spiked to 39.3% last year. It’s still a passable mark, but combined with a strikeout rate that dropped from 29.7% with the Dodgers to 21.1% with the Phillies (and down from 40.8% at his peak in Milwaukee), it’s a bit more concerning.
Think of Knebel as a lower-leverage, mid-relief option — something the Twins don’t really have a shortage of, and especially not from the right side.
Are any of these pitchers worth adding?
It really feels as though Hand and Smith are the only two pitchers on this list who could potentially be difference-makers. Each could make the argument that they deserve a guaranteed deal, while Britton and Knebel would surely only pull a minor-league deal with a Spring Training invitation.
Ultimately, don’t hold your breath hoping for the Twins to make another bullpen addition at this stage in the offseason, unless there’s an injury setback to the current group.