FORT MYERS, Fla. – It had already begun to dawn on Ryan Pressly that things have changed for him with the Twins this spring. There were hints in his conversations with teammates, occasional deference from his coaches. But even so, he wasn’t sure how far he could push things.
So when he stopped by Paul Molitor’s office with a request on Tuesday, he still found himself mildly shocked by the answer.
“I was pitching [on the road] Wednesday, so I asked Mollie, ‘Can I drive myself to Port Charlotte?’ ” Pressly said. Driving is considered a perk, because it allows players to leave once they’ve been removed, rather than waiting for the team bus after the game. “He said, ‘Yeah.’ I was like, ‘I can? You said yes?’ And he said, ‘You’ve accumulated enough time around here to do that.’ ”
Wow, time flies, huh? Even Pressly can’t believe what’s happened to him. There’s a word to describe players like him, but he sounds almost afraid to use it.
“It’s kind of snuck up on me, it really has,” he said. “I’ve been walking around the clubhouse, seeing all of these younger guys, and I start to wonder: Am I a veteran now?”
Well, consider the evidence: Only four of his teammates — Joe Mauer, Glen Perkins, Brian Dozier and Eduardo Escobar — were Twins already when Pressley, a Rule 5 pickup the previous winter, made his Minnesota debut on April 4, 2013. Only Perkins, among current Twins, has pitched in more Twins games since that day. Pressly is in camp to prepare himself for the season, not to battle for a roster spot. And every other Friday, his paychecks will be more than twice as large as they’ve ever been before, because arbitration eligibility gave him negotiating leverage.
Sure sounds like a veteran, even if Pressly is still getting used to the idea.
“To me, veterans are the guys who you look up to. You look at our bullpen, we’ve got Matty [Belisle] and Brandon [Kintzler] — those guys have years in the majors,” Pressly protested. “Matt’s got more than a decade. Same with Bres [Craig Breslow]. Those are the guys you want to be sitting next to, listening to, picking their brains.”
But Pressly is the guy who’s gradually gained some experience, figured out how to attack hitters, and put himself, the Twins believe, on the precipice of becoming a bullpen virtuoso — and perhaps a star.
“He’s got the stuff to do it. He’s got the arm, and he’s fearless,” pitching coach Neil Allen said. “That next step, and he’s close, is just using all his pitches to set up the hitters.”
Pressly’s fastball averaged 95.1 mph last year, higher than any Twins pitcher over the past seven seasons except J.T. Chargois or Alex Meyer, and his command is excellent. He averaged 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings and less than one home run per nine. He didn’t allow a home run to a lefthander last season; he hasn’t done that since Aug. 28, 2014, in fact.
No wonder the Dallas native increasingly has been Molitor’s choice in the late innings. Pressly pitched in the seventh inning 33 times last season and in the eighth 37 times — nearly equaling his 79 career appearances in those innings in the first three years of his career.
“I think he is ready to take on a little bit more,” Molitor said. “He got a chance to get some bigger outs last year. I talked to him on the caravan, and he’s excited for a chance to do that and get better at it.”
And maybe start to enjoy this “veteran” stuff a little more. Rather than obsess over working out to prepare for 2017, he took a couple of tropical trips with his girlfriend over the winter, to Cancun and to Jamaica, because “I had never seen clear water before,” he said. “And the only time I had ever been out of the country was when we played Toronto.”
Now that he’s back in camp, though, Pressly is acting like a rookie again, trying to earn a job he’s already won.
“I guess it’s a little bit more relaxed, but it’s not easy for me to take it easy, really,” he said. “It’s nice to know I can get away with a bad outing and not have to worry too much — in years past, giving up a couple of runs could be pretty stressful. I know I’ve still got to put up numbers. I feel like I’m in a gray area where, yeah, you have a contract now, but they can still get rid of you at any time.”