Earlier this week, the Star Tribune's Phil Miller had something of a head-scratching quote regarding the status of the Twins’ bullpen from President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey.
Despite the reality that relief pitching was one of the primary reasons the Twins went from first place to a distant third in short order last year, Falvey chose to go public with the notion that the bullpen is “not a priority” as we draw ever nearer to spring training.
It was a curious thing to say, given that it’s the primary area the Twins addressed last year at the trade deadline and the one area that has not been addressed thus far in the offseason. Clearly, the front office saw the need to add relief pitching last summer and did so in the form of All-Star Jorge López and veteran Michael Fulmer. But the former struggled mightily in a Twins uniform and the latter hit free agency this winter and remains unsigned.
Surely, the front office is banking on some progression to the mean for López, believing that his post-trade 4.37 ERA, 1.632 WHIP, and 1.29 K/BB ratio, along with a walk rate and a strikeout rate that each went in the wrong direction, were a fluke. While a bounce-back is entirely possible, it’s important to note that López was not a good major-league pitcher prior to 2022. Of course, he was also primarily a starter until last season, and his fantastic stuff was able to show through in shorter stints in a relief role.
So sure, it’s reasonable to assume that the real López is somewhere between his All-Star first half last year and his poor second half. But with Fulmer still unsigned, we’re now talking about the same Twins bullpen that let the team down with frequency for much of last year.
What Falvey said amounts to something of a “vote of confidence” in the existing bullpen, perhaps hoping to encourage the likes of López and Emilio Pagán, who both underperformed relative to expectations last year. Fringe guys with upside such as Jorge Alcala, who was hurt for much of last season, and Jovani Morán, who struggled in Triple-A but was fantastic in 20 appearances at the big-league level, will also be relied upon heavily.
Best-case scenario assumptions
I’ll buy that if the best-case scenario comes to fruition, we’re looking at one of the best relievers in baseball in Jhoan Duran, a pair of strong high-leverage arms in Griffin Jax and López, and a couple of young, high-upside guys in Alcala and Morán. While Pagán did not pitch to the level of his role last year, he should be able to enter this season in a lower-leverage role with the opportunity to prove that he’s worthy of more appearances in tight spots. There is clear upside among this group.
Here’s how Falvey is looking at it. Last year’s bullpen finished middle-of-the-pack by most metrics. Anecdotally, it seemed worse because of the high number of blown games against teams like Cleveland. For the most part, that can be chalked up to bad luck, and if those mistakes happen against a non-divisional opponent, they don’t hurt as much relative to the standings. Plus, the Twins' front office must assume that the likes of Pagán and López will bounce back this year.
Have we already seen the worst-case scenario?
The calculus is that the floor for this group is middle-of-the-pack, and they’ve improved their depth by adding a full season of López and young, healthy arms like Alcala and Morán. There’s considerable upside for a ‘pen led by Duran and López, and if last year was a potential worst-case scenario, then there’s nowhere to go but up.
That said, re-signing Fulmer would go a long way to shoring up the middle innings. And if they don’t add the former Tiger, don’t be surprised if the Twins add at least one more veteran arm to compete for a middle-relief role this spring.
Here’s hoping that Falvey is right about the bullpen. If he’s wrong and the relief pitching is shoddy early in the season, then everyone will point to his early-February quote and wonder why the Twins were so confident in a group that was largely mediocre for most of last season.