This offseason, few areas had more of an emphasis on them than that of the Minnesota Twins bullpen. While the situation as a whole needed addressing, it was the left handed contingent that no doubt left the most to be desired. Having significant deficiencies in late innings a season ago cost the Twins, and there appears to be two strategies at play when it comes to fixing things moving forward.
On the left-handed side of the relief picture, the Twins have moved on from roster staple Brian Duensing. Arguably sticking with him a year or so too long, Duensing was the epitome of the Twins shortcomings in relief a season ago. He owned a pedestrian 4.25 ERA, stuck no one out (4.4 K/9) and walked too many batters (3.9 BB/9). Heading into 2016 with Glen Perkins as the lone left handed option, the Twins needed to seek outside help.
In scouring the market, the deal the New York Mets handed to Antonio Bastardo (2 years, $12m) seemingly provides the most uproar when it comes to the Twins handling of their pen. An affordable deal in an otherwise ballooning relief market, Bastardo on his own could have made sense for Minnesota. With how Minnesota acted prior to him being signed however, their stance on the left all but makes sense.
Early on in the offseason, the Twins targeted left-handed reliever Fernando Abad, formerly of the Oakland Athletics. His K/9 rate (8.5) was a career high a season ago, but it was the ugly ERA (4.15) and FIP (5.50) numbers, along with decreased velocity (down nearly 2 mph on his fastball) that led to him earning just an MiLB deal. The Twins were noted to believe that Abad had been tipping his pitches per LaVelle Neal, and Parker Hageman of Twins Daily broke that down wonderfully. What the signing of Abad indicates is a stance in belief of an internal process, and the work of pitching coach Neil Allen.
Minnesota is almost assuredly going to roll with Abad come Opening Day. Brought in as a non-roster invitee to spring training, Abad has the potential to earn a couple million should he make the team. In using this approach, Terry Ryan put faith in his coaches, as well as the internal belief that Abad has more to offer. From the moment the deal was struck, it became illogical for the Twins to offer a multi-year deal with Bastardo or anyone else of similar situation.
Had the Twins decided to bring in a more certain left-handed reliever, and on a multi-year deal, the plan with Abad likely would have been moot prior to even getting off of the ground. Sticking to the belief that he will work had to be the plan all the way through. As an insurance policy should things go wrong, the Twins could look to double down on another MiLB type deal.
Internally, Minnesota would turn to the likes of Mike Strong, Pat Dean, or Taylor Rogers for left-handed relief. A more proven veteran option could include someone like Neal Cotts or Matt Thornton. Both have the likely possibility of landing an MLB deal, but Minnesota could ask nonetheless. With the Abad situation playing out as it has however, the Twins are best served to put no one in front of him for a roster spot at this point.
That leads us to the second strategy that Ryan, Paul Molitor, and the Twins seem to be leaning towards. Although one of the largest roster issues at the top is relief pitching, it's actually one of the organizations greatest strengths as well. On the farm, the likes of Nick Burdi, Jake Reed, J.T. Chargois, and Mason Melotakis are not far off. Obviously varying in expectations, each of them could be called upon to be key contributors in relief during the 2016 season.
On the right-handed side of the bullpen, Minnesota decided to make no moves. Although Brandon Kintzler was brought into the fold, he appears to be more minor league depth than anything. There was no move for Tyler Clippard, or anyone else of significant substance for that matter. By all estimations, that should signify an aggressive approach internally.
The Twins won't be moving on from Glen Perkins, Kevin Jepsen, or Trevor May any time soon, but that would appear to be where the sure things in the bullpen end. Should Casey Fien, Michael Tonkin or someone else falter, pulling performers that have been drafted in the organization is a noble idea. Burdi, Reed, Chargois, and even Alex Meyer all have the ability to bring a level of velocity and strikeout totals not witnessed in relief for Minnesota in quite some time. The biggest contingent to this strategy is Minnesota actually following through on it.
Having not made guaranteed moves at the major league level, Minnesota cannot be shy about aggressively asking its prospects to come up and contribute. I see the group of Burdi, Chargois, and Reed all making a big league debut by the end of July, and that would be a successful follow up to the way the offseason was handled. Slow playing those prospects while not making a more certain move at the top would remain contradictory.
As things stand now, the Twins are still likely listening in on what the market is dictating. The two worst moves that they could make at this point are simple however. Signing a left-handed reliever to a multi-year deal for guaranteed money, or signing any right-handed pitcher to anything but a multi-year deal. We've addressed the former and the implications it would have against any strategy employed with Fernando Abad. The latter, barring Tyler Clippard walking through the door, would negate a desire to reap the fruits of your system. A caveat to the second situation, is that Ryan and company must follow through by going internal for a relief boost.
On paper, it appears that the Twins have more strategy than they are being credited with when it comes to filling out the pen. It remains to be seen whether or not that ends up resulting in action.