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Don’t act surprised: Twins build bad bullpen, get bad relief pitching

REUTERS/USA Today Sports/Brad Rempel
In spite of his inability to neutralize right-handers, the Twins retained Brian Duensing for $2.7 million and kept him in a key role.

As part of the frustrating decision-making process that led to choosing the older, lower-upside option to fill nearly every up-for-grabs roster spot coming out of spring training the Twins now have a bullpen stocked with marginal big leaguers. To make matters worse their best setup man, Casey Fien, has been hurt and their lone standout reliever, Glen Perkins, continues to be in a role reserved for “save” situations that severely limit his overall usage.

All of which has added up to new manager Paul Molitor turning to an assortment of replacement level-caliber arms and repeatedly watching them fail, often in high-leverage spots. Twins relievers have combined to throw 21 innings with a 5.91 ERA and nearly as many walks (8) as strikeouts (10). Among all MLB teams the Twins’ bullpen ranks either worst or second-worst in ERA, xFIP, strikeout rate, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and opponents’ batting average.

Assuming that Fien’s shoulder issues prove minor he’ll soon be taking on a lot of the late-inning setup work that’s been going to lesser options and in general the Twins’ bullpen isn’t as bad as it’s looked so far because basically no bullpen is that bad. However, when you bypass better, younger, higher-upside options to give jobs to mediocre, low-upside veterans a bad bullpen is exactly what you get. No one, least of all the Twins, should be surprised by the early results.

This offseason 32-year-old left-hander Brian Duensing was a non-tender candidate because his inability to neutralize right-handers made him ill-suited for a setup role, but the Twins retained him for $2.7 million and kept him in a key role. They also spent $2.2 million on 33-year-old free agent right-hander Tim Stauffer, whose nice-looking raw numbers for the Padres came attached to a 90-mph fastball and included a 4.28 ERA away from MLB’s most pitcher-friendly ballpark.

When the Twins signed Blaine Boyer to a minor-league deal in January it seemed like a move made mostly for organizational depth, because he’s a 33-year-old journeyman with a 4.63 ERA in the majors and a 5.31 ERA at Triple-A, but he ended up making the team largely on the basis of a half-dozen spring training innings. Another former minor-league signing, 28-year-old journeyman Aaron Thompson, was chosen as the third lefty despite an underwhelming track record.

If healthy Perkins is a good closer and Fien is a decent setup man, but the Twins chose to fill the other five bullpen spots with Duensing, Stauffer, Boyer, Thompson, and Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham. And in creating that seven-man bullpen in which the only pitcher under 30 years old is there via the Rule 5 draft Molitor and the front office passed over several younger, cheaper, higher-upside relievers already in the organization.

Michael Tonkin is 25 years old and has pitched well in a few brief stints with the Twins, posting a 3.26 ERA and 26/9 K/BB ratio in 30 innings while averaging 94 miles per hour with his fastball. He was sent back to Rochester for his third straight season at Triple-A, where Tonkin has a 3.39 ERA and 85/21 K/BB ratio in 80 innings. He’s young and cheap, he throws hard and misses bats, and he’s fared well at Triple-A and in Minnesota.

Caleb Thielbar spent most of the past two seasons in the Twins’ bullpen and pitched well as the third lefty, throwing 94 innings with a 2.59 ERA and 74/30 K/BB ratio. Ryan Pressly also spent much of the past two seasons in the Twins’ bullpen, posting a 3.60 ERA in 105 innings. Pressly’s secondary numbers were much less impressive, but he averaged 93 miles per hour with his fastball in the majors and has pitched well at Triple-A. They were both demoted to Rochester.

Lester Oliveros was acquired from the Tigers in the Delmon Young trade and missed most of 2013 recovering from elbow surgery. He returned last season to split the year between Double-A and Triple-A, posting a 1.64 ERA with 88 strikeouts and zero homers allowed in 66 innings. At age 27 his upside is limited and Oliveros’ control can be iffy, but he throws in the mid-90s and has averaged 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings for his minor-league career.

Using the $5 million they spent on Duensing and Stauffer to acquire better relievers is something the Twins could have done this offseason, but even ignoring that possibility they had no shortage of intriguing, cheap, in-house bullpen options deserving of an opportunity and/or extended stay in the majors. They chose to give roster spots to none of them and the early results are what that flawed decision-making process deserves.

For a sadness- and anger-filled discussion of the Twins’ rough opening week, check out the latest “Gleeman and The Geek” episode.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 04/15/2015 - 09:33 am.

    so we like Molitor why?

    I would assume the manager has the most say in who goes north with the team. Why would he make these choices? Or is he just here in sort of a Kevin Garnett role, to lure in ticket buyers without really helping the team on the field or on the court. Short honeymoon, I think.

  2. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 04/15/2015 - 11:06 am.

    The owners got what they really wanted

    Both the Twins and the Vikings owners got what they really wanted, new stadiums. Since then they have both fielded sub-mediocre teams. There isn’t any money to be made for the owners in paying for high over priced players when it is less costly to soak patrons with food, beverage, and overpriced merchandise costs. Nothing will force the owners to make any significant changes until attendance at the games drops off significantly and starts to impact “their” wallets. Note to politicians we are swimming in new stadiums and poor performing teams. There isn’t any reason to add another stadium so we can then claim we have a sub-mediocre soccer team too.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/15/2015 - 02:14 pm.

    It’s a young man’s game

    …says the 70-year-old. Or maybe it’s a young woman’s game, though I’ve seen very few women playing fast-pitch softball who have looked to me like they could compete for a major-league baseball roster spot. More important than gender, it seems to me, is age. Yes, modern physical conditioning routines, dietary regimens, and other factors can prolong the careers of professional athletes in quite a few sports (e.g., Lindsey Vonn), but eventually physical decline catches up to everyone.

    Particularly when it would be less expensive to do so, I remain puzzled by Twins’ ownership’s insistence on keeping pitchers who are mediocre, at best, while better arms languish in the farm system. After 4 consecutive seasons of 90+ losses, they have absolutely nothing to lose by giving the new guys an extended trial at the major league level. Baseball is still ruled by pitching, and when there are younger, less expensive, and most importantly, demonstrably better (measured via ERA and other statistical tools) arms in the Twins’ minor league system, it’s more than a little bit counterproductive to keep putting people out on the mound who have demonstrated that, regardless of their prior career path, they’re definitely on the downhill side right now.

    Experience is worth something in an athletic context, but it doesn’t trump ability completely. I have no idea how much input Mr. Molitor had in choosing which players stuck with the major league club and which ones ended up in Rochester, but I presume it’s significant. If that’s true, then he, the pitching coach(es), and team ownership have made some poor choices. An already-long season then becomes a sort of marathon of misery for both fans and players hoping to avoid humiliation.

    I came here after half a century in St. Louis. Call me spoiled, but I expect better performance than what I’ve seen from the Twins since I arrived.

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