Rewind a year and the talk around this time was how poor the Minnesota Twins bullpen looked going into 2019. The team was coming off a down year, and relievers looked capable of ceding leads. New pitching coach, new manager, many similar faces, then. The narrative is entirely different for 2020.
When headed to Spring Training prior to the 2019 season, the Twins were coming off of two years in which they finished 24th and 18th as a bullpen respectively. Garvin Alston had been shown the door, and so too had skipper Paul Molitor. In an age where rotations had become simply a means to an end, it was the power bullpens that reigned supreme.
Breaking camp to head north Rocco Baldelli and Wes Johnson took a relief corps that included Taylor Rogers, Adlaberto Mejia, Trevor May, Blake Parker, Trevor Hildenberger, and Ryne Harper. Just two of those names remain for the 2020 squad, and they’ve now been developed into absolute studs.
Coming out of the 2019 season, Johnson and Baldelli had orchestrated a relief group that posted the third best fWAR (7.3) across baseball. Rogers and May were joined by Tyler Duffey in hitting career marks, and Zack Littell was groomed into a solid back end arm. Though this group may not have the names of some other top units, their creating household numbers on their own.
Johnson helped Rogers to produce the 11th best single season reliever fWAR (2.1) in Twins history. It was the best single-season performance since 2006 when Joe Nathan recorded the second-best mark (3.1) in club history, and it was a step up from Taylor’s already impressive 2018 season. It isn’t just about what Johnson got out of an already good arm, however.
Acquired in the Ben Revere trade with the Philadelphia Phillies, Trevor May never worked out as a starter. Injuries mounted, and after sorting out his back issues, relief work became the way to go. He posted a career best FIP in 2018 and ratcheted up the strikeout numbers. Last year though, he became a true shutdown type while posting 11.1 K/9, and career lows in both H/9 (6.0) and HR/9 (1.1).
Joining May in taking a step forward was Tyler Duffey. The former Rice closer went down the starting path and we nearly cast aside after a disastrous 7.20 ERA in 2018. Over 57.2 IP a year ago, he turned in a 2.50 ERA, 12.8 K/9 (nearly double the 2018 number), and a 3.06 FIP. With one of the best curveballs on the staff, the guy known as Doof certainly can mow 'em down in big moments.
Minnesota identified Sergio Romo in an astute trade during last year’s deadline, and the fan favorite was brought back this year after posting a 146 ERA+ and 10.6 K/9. Looking great in Cleveland a year ago, 35-year-old Tyler Clippard and his strong career numbers over 13 years were added to the veteran presence.
Being able to add Littell, who posted a 0.88 ERA and 27/8 K/BB over his final 30.2 IP, was one of the Twins great accomplishments a season ago. Matt Wisler is a former Top-100 prospect that hasn’t seen big league success, but there’s no denying Johnson sees something he likes there. Minnesota gave him a guaranteed contract, and the slider is a pitch to work with.
Then there’s phenom Brusdar Graterol. It’s hardly a death sentence to send a 21-year-old kid to the bullpen (ask Johan Santana). Still looking to develop a complete repertoire, Graterol’s triple-digit heater should be plenty useful when attacking the opposition. Baldelli being able to go there in earlier innings is something a luxury only a pen this good could afford. Maybe his role is tweaked down the line, but there’s something to be said about adding arguably the best available relief arm by simply picking from your own organization.
Things never go according to plan, so being able to rest on depth like Cody Stashak and his nutty 25/1 debut K/BB, or Jorge Alcala and his big fastball are certainly realities new to the organization. When hired from the Indians organization it was consistently noted that Derek Falvey’s calling card was developing pitching. It’s not hard to see how powerful the infrastructure he’s blueprinted now is, and the fruit that it continues to bear.
Minnesota was topped by the Rays (7.6 fWAR) and Yankees (7.5) last year. Jumping to that top spot isn't at all unlikely. This ain’t your grandad’s Minnesota Twins bullpen. They have to go out and perform, but this is a unit that is going to be an absolute problem in the best way possible.
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