Ryan Pressly honestly wasn’t trying to be a smart aleck, had no trace of spite in his voice. But intentional or not, his question during Monday’s All-Star media session couldn’t help but drip with irony. “I hear the Twins are looking for relief pitching right now,” Pressly said. “That true?”
Yes, it is. They’d like to pick up a pitcher with shut-down stuff, a hard thrower who’s not afraid of game-in-the-balance situations. You know, a Ryan Pressly type.
But the Twins’ dilemma, as the trade deadline approaches in another 17 days, could hardly be illustrated better than at last week’s All-Star Game.
On the National League roster were Kirby Yates of the Padres and Will Smith of the Giants, a pair of veteran relievers who have pitched in 10 different organizations between them but who have transformed into two of the league’s most dominant closers over the past couple of seasons. Minnesota has been linked to both pitchers as teams shop around for potential fits.
On the American League roster were Pressly of the Astros and Liam Hendriks, the closer in Oakland, both of whom also endured plenty of ups and downs before emerging as All-Star relievers with upper-90s velocity. Both of whom, Twins fans don’t need to be reminded, once made Target Field their home.
“I enjoyed my time in Minnesota. They were the first team to give me a chance. I met my wife while with the Twins,” Hendriks said. “But I’m not the same pitcher I was then.”
Nope, and that’s the problem. The minor leagues are an excellent mechanism for identifying the best hitters, the elite defenders, the most promising starting pitchers. “With relievers, though, it can take a while, years and years, to figure out who you are and what you’re capable of,” said Yates, who leads the majors with 30 saves and owns a 1.15 ERA.
The 32-year-old righthander has been let go by five different organizations during his career, “so I was constantly hoping, please somebody claim me just so I can stay in the big leagues,” he said. “But when the Padres signed me, I felt like I was ready to be a big leaguer. I was ready to have success.”
The difference? Yates said it’s many things, including conditioning, experience and a better understanding of what works in the majors. “I needed to find an out pitch. In the bullpen, all the guys who are good have a swing-and-miss pitch,” he said. “I wanted to find that, so I started throwing a splitter. It kept getting better. Two or three years later, here I am. It’s my best pitch.”
Similarly, Smith got to the majors as a starter, was traded three times, missed a season after Tommy John surgery — and suddenly blossomed into a relief ace with a devastating slider. He was 23-for-23 in save situations through Friday and reportedly is being bid upon by at least a half-dozen teams.
“Nobody ever has a perfectly smooth road,” Smith said. “I always had confidence, but sometimes it takes a while for opportunity to come along.”
Hendriks said that after washing out as a starter on the Twins, and switching teams six times, he considered playing in Japan or South Korea but kept believing he could get MLB hitters out.
“My mentality changed. I became aggressive, stopped pitching hesitantly. I have a bullpen mentality,” he said. “I took a personality test in Australia, and it summed me up as a mosquito — just flying around, always buzzing, annoying you. It’s kind of a good thing for a relief pitcher.”
So is failure, Yates believes, at least for a while. But it makes it incredibly difficult to identify the next great reliever.
“The scuffling put me into the position I am now. I don’t care if I fail, I’ve been through it. I’ve been through all the sleepless nights,” he said. “I’m not afraid to challenge hitters, make them hit my pitch. You can’t do that if you’re afraid to fail. But it takes a while to get to this point, I guess.”
Phil Miller covers the Twins for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @MillerStrib