Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Twins Enter 2017 Ignoring Conventional Wisdom

This offseason, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed closer Kenley Jansen to an $80 million contract. The New York Yankees inked closer Aroldis Chapman to an $86 million deal. Late inning super-reliever Andrew Miller was the Cleveland Indians star of the Postseason, and Wade David held that title as the Royals closer a year prior. Back end relief pitching has become the new phenomenon, but the Minnesota Twins will ignore the trend in 2017.

Glen Perkins was a 1st round pick by the Twins in 2004 out of the University of Minnesota. He was a local kid out of Stillwater, and has the "one of us" narrative going as he still currently resides in Lakevill. After flaming out as a starter, Perkins picked up his first save for the Twins during the 2011 season. Since then, he's gone on to save 120 games, good enough for third all time in franchise history.

From 2013-2015, Perkins was among the best and most underrated closers in the game of baseball. He made three straight All Star games, saved 30+ games per year, and owned a combined ERA of 3.08. Since moving to the closer role full time, Perkins owns a 9.9 K/9 with a very solid 1.9 BB/9. No matter which numbers you look at, Perkins has had everything going in his favor. In the middle of the 2014 season, Perkins may have been Minnesota's best trade chip in quite some time. Unfortunately, all of this now looks like a distant memory.

Following the All Star Break in 2015, Perkins went on to save just four games, blow three, and post a 7.32 ERA while allowing a 1.068 OPS. After being shut down to end the year, he came back in 2016 to pitch just two innings posting a 9.00 ERA all before undergoing surgery to reattach his labrum to the bone. The injury helps to explain the deterioration of his ability, but it also highlights the volatility of expecting him to return to anything close to what he once was.

Prior to the 2017 season, Perkins will be 34 years old. It sure doesn't look like he'll be ready for Opening Day, and what he can provide the Twins beyond that remains a major question mark. Sitting at 95 mph in 2013, Perkins' fastball velocity has dipped every year until bottoming out at 91 mph a season ago. His out pitch has been a very strong sweeping slider, and that too had seen a decrease of two miles per hour over the past three seasons.

Digging deeper, the numbers continue to mount against the Minnesota native. Perkins has slipped over two percent since 2013 when it comes to generating swinging strikes, and he's giving up contact to hitters nearly 80% of the time (a 5% jump from 2013). Even without an injury to throw a wrench into things, Perkins would have been far from a given in late game situations going into the upcoming season.

Last year, Paul Molitor was forced to call upon veteran journeyman Brandon Kintzler to save games for the big league club. He recorded his first save (and then 16 more) of his big league career, and first since 2012 at Double-A for the Brewers. Filling in admirably, Kintzler helped the Twins limp to the finish line during a franchise worst 103 loss campaign. He posted a 3.40 ERA as the club's closer and allowed a .684 OPS to opposing hitters. To say Kintzler got the job done is fair, to count on him going forward is shaky at best.

Kintzler was a non-roster invitee by former Twins General Manager Terry Ryan. He looked like a decent enough pick up to bolster a bad Minnesota bullpen. Forcing a guy generating 5.8 K/9 into a late inning closer role though isn't a good bet. Working in his favor is that Kintzler walks no one, just 1.3 per nine in 2016 to be exact. Regardless, if you're filling out a bullpen, neither your club nor Kintzler himself should see an ideal fit in the closer role.

That brings the Twins to a crossroads. There's really no in house option short of running bullpen coach Eddie Guardado back out to the mound. J.T. Chargois may eventually assume that role, and prospect Nick Burdi was trending that way before losing his 2016 completely to different injuries. Ryan Pressly may have some late inning appeal, and Tyler Duffey operated as a closer in college for Rice University. No matter who's name you suggest however, the reality is that they're nothing better than a dart throw.

What could be best for the Twins is to go with an all out belief that you should always be using your best relievers when the game is on the line. We saw this past Postseason how Joe Maddon and Terry Francona would go to Chapman and Miller when they needed outs most. While Miller wasn't the Indians closer, both have plenty of saves under their belts. Paul Molitor could decide to use the hot hand, and call upon the guy he believes best gives him the opportunity to generate outs when he needs them. Naming a closer among a group void of a real fit could place unnecessary pressure on someone.

I'd wager that Kintzler will be given the first crack at the 9th inning to open 2017. It'd be great if he stuck, but far from unexpected if it doesn't happen. Minnesota shouldn't be knocking down the door to the playoffs this season, so opportunity should be present for anyone who wants to grab the reins and run with them. Maybe Perkins will defy the odds and give Minnesota another year; maybe he positions himself to be a trade asset at the break. Right now though, it doesn't appear counting on Glen is a good bet, and there's not anyone else that looks like an immediate answer either.

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