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Written By Brandon Warne (ZoneCoverage.com)
PhotoCredit: Brian Curski Photography
Ask 10 Minnesota Twins fans what the team’s biggest need is as the trade deadline approaches, and each of them is likely to give you the same answer: bullpen help.
That’s for a few reasons. First of all, when a bullpen struggles it’s usually in high-profile spots, drawing the ire of fans both dedicated and casual. Secondly, those struggles have been increasingly visible this month — especially over the last few weeks as the Twins have seen their lead dwindle from double digits down to just three games entering play on Tuesday night.
But ultimately, it’s largely due to a season-long perception that the Twins were going to struggle pitching-wise. The offense was built to succeed, and there was hope — albeit tempered — for a starting rotation that has ultimately made 95 of the team’s 100 starts once Kyle Gibson threw his first pitch against the Yankees Tuesday night.
That starting rotation has compiled a 3.75 ERA this season, good for second in the American League. That group also came into Tuesday night’s tilt averaging 5.67 innings per game — the No. 1 mark in the AL.
LISTEN: Tom, Brandon and Matt Trueblood discuss the trade deadline in great detail on the latest episode of Midwest Swing here!
The safest way to classify that would be as a pleasant surprise. But for all the goodwill the rotation has banked, the relief corps feels as though it has paid it back in spades.
As a group, the relievers have posted a 4.33 ERA and 1.37 WHIP. Absent the necessary context, neither of those numbers are especially encouraging.
But the Twins aren’t unique in this respect. AL teams, on the whole, have posted a 4.44 ERA from their bullpens, with a 1.38 WHIP and 1.36 home runs per nine innings — slightly more than the Twins have allowed (1.24).
The upshot is that Twins actually have an above-average bullpen when surveying the AL landscape on the whole. They rank seventh (out of 15) in ERA, seventh in WHIP, sixth in strikeouts per nine innings, fifth in strikeouts per walk and they have the sixth-fewest blown saves.
In fact, by win probability added (explained here), the Twins bullpen ranks fourth — across all MLB, not just the AL. Basically, what that means is the Twins have done a fairly good job in tight spots this season, even if a fan’s collective memory might remember it differently.
None of this is going to keep fans warm at night, or serve as a reason for leads to be considered safe in the near future without moves being made, but at this moment all we can do is report what has happened.
So what does this mean?
Well, let’s first look at the landscape of MLB on the whole. With the trade deadline one week plus one day away, very few meaningful deals have been consummated. The reason for this is twofold.
First, let’s consider this report from MLB.com reporter Mark Feinsand:
According to an AL executive, the asking prices on relievers – rentals, in particular – were "still ridiculously high" as of this weekend. Belief around the industry is that there will be a flurry of late moves closer to the July 31 deadline.
— Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand) July 22, 2019
So that at least justifies why the Twins haven’t gotten anything done to this point — it’s considered to be cost-prohibitive.
In some ways, it won’t stay that way. The rental market — in other words, players who are free agents at the end of the season — will pick up in some respect, lest their non-contending teams be left with nothing to show for these assets at the end of the year.
But therein lies the rub. Despite there being so few teams who made active attempts to add assets this past offseason, 19 of the 30 MLB teams were within five games of a playoff spot entering Tuesday’s action.
Deadlines spur action, and that phrase is even more apt this season with just one trade deadline. Gone is the August waiver period, which has been a hotbed of reliever acquisitions in the past — though not necessarily big-name guys.
As a result, teams will have to make a “sink-or-swim” decision on their season by July 31. Every team that opts to swim removes trade candidates from the proverbial pool of available players. This is especially important for a team like San Francisco with a very good bullpen, a moderately good record and yet, very little chance of making the postseason. Yet they still may push their chips into the middle with Madison Bumgarner eligible for free agency at season’s end, with manager Bruce Bochy also retiring following this year.
If the Giants decide not to sell, that could be as many as five relievers taken off the shopping shelves as the end of July approaches.
Now consider that 22 teams have a bullpen ERA of 4.00 or higher. Five of them — including a contender in the Washington Nationals — register above a 5.00 bullpen ERA.
So make a hypothetical Venn diagram of teams looking for relief help and teams who could hypothetically convince themselves they can make the postseason this year.
That’s a lot of overlap, and the simple fact is that there are going to be more teams looking for relief help than there will be relievers available.
Bidding wars will ensue, and as a result prices may come down — as Feinsand intimates — the closer July 31 gets on the calendar, but there’s no guarantee they’ll get into the comfort zones of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, at least as it applies to available pitchers with name recognition.
Want Will Smith? Ken Giles? Felipe Vazquez? Then you’d better be prepared to give up a top-five prospect in a good, but perhaps not quite elite Twins farm system.
This isn’t to say that Falvey and Levine won’t address the bullpen with one or two moves; it just means they’ll have to be creative so they don’t sacrifice their future for Mr. Right Now in the bullpen — especially given the volatility of relievers over full seasons, let alone a couple of months at the end of a season.
What that means is no matter what the cost is to acquire a good reliever, there’s no guarantee he won’t have his two worst months of the season and provide no more value than someone from inside the organization like Jake Reed, Lewis Thorpe, Kohl Stewart or any of a number of other pitchers.
So it’s a big gamble with any reliever, and that gamble is ratcheted up if that pitcher is a rental who requires a big-time prospect in return. Let’s say the Twins acquire Shane Greene, and he pitches well for the Twins but they don’t win the World Series in either this year or next — both of the righty’s remaining years of control.
Now let’s imagine that costs a prospect like Trevor Larnach. Maybe Larnach doesn’t do anything for the Tigers in the two years Greene is with the Twins, but that’s still six years of club control of a guy who looks like he’ll be a pretty good MLB hitter. Then consider he’ll be in the AL Central and could haunt the Twins over that stretch, long after Greene is no longer a Twin.
No prospect is a sure thing, but nobody wants to give up on potential, either. A hypothetical that is floated all the time is “if this move gets you to the World Series, the price to do it doesn’t matter.”
On the surface that’s acceptable logic, but no move guarantees advancing in the postseason, let alone a World Series berth. Many, many great teams who went all-in have their moment in October and hoist that trophy when the dust settles.
Many, many more do not.
What this means is that the Twins brass is going to have to be creative. The best thing the Twins have going for them is that they can build the bullpen from the back forward. Taylor Rogers has been terrific in any role Rocco Baldelli has used him this season, so if the Twins don’t acquire a ninth-inning guy, he can simply continue getting outs at the end of games — or earlier, if high-leverage spots present themselves.
But if the Twins acquire a nominal ninth-inning guy — not to diminish the value of Blake Parker, but this was basically expected to be his role to start the season — that frees up Rogers to be a relief ace.
If the Twins add two guys in front of Rogers, it simply gives Baldelli two more arms he can trust late in games.
But identifying those two guys — and what to give up for them — will be a tough task.
Further complicating things is that a number of Twins prospects have had tough or injury-plagued seasons in 2019. Royce Lewis and Kirilloff have seen their season numbers dip a bit this year. Wander Javier is having a rough, rough time (.529 OPS) at Low-A Cedar Rapids, and has to be protected from the Rule 5 draft this winter. Brusdar Graterol has been out with a shoulder issue for over two months. Stephen Gonsalves has made just one appearance all season. Akil Baddoo and Luke Raley are out for the year.
There’s also the question of how teams will value pop-up guys like Jordan Balazovic and Jhoan Duran, who have pushed themselves up the rankings with strong 2019 seasons. Or how about Brent Rooker, who has raked this year but has limited positional value?
This is why Falvey and Levine are in the roles they are; they’re literally paid to make these decisions. But they won’t be easy.
Will they choose the creative route and deal for a guy like Ian Kennedy of the Royals, who has experienced a career renaissance as a reliever, but is owed roughly $24 million between now and the end of the 2020 season? However much money the Royals are willing to pick up will dictate what kind of prospect returns in the deal, so the Twins’ banked payroll flexibility could loom large here.
Or how about someone like Orioles righty Mychal Givens? He won’t come cheaply — especially with another year of control — but his 4.23 ERA (4.63 FIP) should no doubt drop the asking price from what it might have been a year (3.99) or two (2.75) ago.
This group has already shown the ability to be flexible and creative when it comes to roster building. C.J. Cron has been a big part of the offense, and he was a waiver claim. Martin Perez was an afterthought in free agency this offseason, and he’s done enough to be a viable No. 4 or 5 starter this season.
He could also be a terrific bullpen arm if the Twins acquire another starter — another avenue that could be pursued creatively to make the team better while not paying premier prospect cost for a reliever, but instead a starter like Marcus Stroman, who has club control beyond this season.
The Twins can’t afford to wait on Trevor May to regain his form and be a trusted late-inning option. He’s still going to be in the mix the rest of the season, and if he does get things in order, that’s all the better for Baldelli’s bullpen. They also can’t afford to see if Cody Allen still has ‘it’ — or more accurately, has regained ‘it’. Carlos Torres isn’t the answer to any meaningful question.
The Twins may not want to pay market rate for relief help, but they also can’t afford to not make significant changes, either.
This is going to be a wild eight days. Buckle up.