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After looking at the Twins top hitter and starting pitcher performances for August the last couple of days, today we’ll take a look at the top relievers in the season’s final month. Next week, we’ll start looking at the players of the year.
There were a lot of terrific bullpen performances throughout the month of August. The Twins have focused their attention in recent drafts on hard-throwers, including several bullpen arms. That becomes apparent as you look through both the Honorable Mention and the Top 5.
Here are my choices for the Top 5 Twins Minor League Relief Pitchers in August, starting with several Honorable Mentions.
TOP 5 MINNESOTA TWINS RELIEF PITCHER OF AUGUST 2014
Number 5 – Cedar Rapids – RHP Dallas Gallant - 9 G, 1.46 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 12.1 IP, 5 H, 5 BB, 22 K
Gallant was #2 on this list in July, and he was just as good in August. The hard-throwing right-hander continued to dominate the Florida State League as a set up man who also recorded two saves in the month. He has walked a few too many, but his stuff is such that he doesn’t give up many hits. In fact, opponents hit just .122 off of him in August with a .422 OPS. After missing the first 50 games this season, Gallant is a guy who will likely start in Ft. Myers next year, but with some others, he could move up quickly.
Number 4 – Elizabethton – LHP Sam Clay - 7 G, 0.00 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 13.0 IP, 11 H, 4 BB, 20 K
Clay was the Twins 4th round pick this June out of Georgia Tech. His first nine appearances with Elizabethton were pretty brutal. However, he has figured out something and been very good the last month. In fact, he didn’t give up a run and found ways to miss bats. This is just the start of the run of 2014 Twins draft picks that appear on this list.
Number 3 – Rochester – RHP Lester Oliveros - 12 G, 0.90 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 20.0 IP, 15 H, 7 BB, 31 K
His first big league appearance in over two years following Tommy John surgery didn’t go so well, but Oliveros has been spectacular throughout the 2014 season. He was dominant in August while also being a workhorse for the Red Wings. The still-just-26-year-old throws hard and has had much better control of his breaking ball than we saw the other night. With a strong September, he could find himself in the mix for a roster spot on Opening Day 2015.
Number 2 – Ft. Myers – Nick Burdi - 10 G, 0.00 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 10.1 IP, 6 H, 3 BB, 17 K
When he was drafted, we knew about the 100 mph fastball, and we had heard about the 91 mph slider that he flashed early in the college season. Burdi has touched those numbers in his 2+ months in professional baseball. He was promoted to Ft. Myers at the end of July, and he is yet to give up a run. He has plenty of strikeouts, but it’s more encouraging to see his walks decreasing. Burdi is a guy who will likely fly through the Twins farm system and could certainly be in Minnesota in 2015.
And the Twins Minor League Relief Pitcher of the Month is:
Cedar Rapids – Jake Reed - 8 G, 0.00 ERA, 0.54 WHIP, 13.0 IP, 5 H, 2 BB, 16 K
Reed also won this award in July when he posted a 0.18 WHIP through that month, his first month with the Kernels. The 5th round pick from Oregon remained dominant in the season’s final month. He is strong enough yet that the Twins are sending him to the Arizona Fall League this year. In August, he went 1-0 and recorded three saves. Opponents hit just .116 off of him with a silly .295 OPS. Reed throws hard, hitting 97 at times. He has a breaking pitch that will need to improve, but considering he’s been a pro for a little over two months, he’s on a good track toward Target Field.
So what do you think? I’ve listed five relievers here (along with several other Honorable Mentions) that deserve be recognized for their terrific performances this past month. Who would your choice be? How would you rank these guys (and feel free to include others)?
Alex Meyer, who entered this season as the bona fide top pitching prospect in the Minnesota Twins organization, saw his season come to an ominous end over the weekend, when he was removed in the second inning of his final start for the Rochester Red Wings due to shoulder stiffness.
The move was deemed "precautionary" but it is unsettling nonetheless, considering that the hard-throwing right-hander missed about a third of the 2013 season because of shoulder problems.
Now, Meyer's designation as the team's best pitching prospect has grown tenuous, not just because of his own question marks but because another young hurler in the organization has risen rapidly, overcoming the odds to emerge as one of the most exciting and unusual arms in the minor leagues.
J.O. Berrios won't be taking his first legal drink until next May, but his spectacular 2014 season certainly deserves a toast.
Berrios gained some immediate fanfare when the touching video of his tear-filled celebration went viral after he was selected by the Twins with the 32nd overall pick in 2012. That fanfare grew with a dominant debut between two levels of rookie ball, where the teenager posted a 1.17 ERA and ridiculous 49-to-4 K/BB ratio over 30 innings.
The enthusiasm surrounding Berrios died down a bit last year in his first exposure to full-season baseball at Cedar Rapids. His 3.99 ERA and 1.40 WHIP were not terrible by any means, especially considering his age, but he certainly looked more human.
Then came this 2014 season. Berrios moved up a level to open in High-A, and he was simply lights-out with the Ft. Myers Miracle. In 16 starts, he went 9-3 with a 1.96 ERA and 109-to-23 K/BB ratio. After watching him rattle off 10 straight quality starts with 82 strikeouts in 66 innings from May 13 through July 4, the Twins -- who have typically fallen on the conservative side when it comes to promoting pitchers -- really had little choice but to bump him up to Double-A.
Berrios, who had turned 20 just a couple weeks before his promotion, became the youngest pitcher to throw in the Eastern League, where the average batter is 24.7 years old. Despite his drastic disadvantage in age and experience, the righty continued to hold his own for New Britain, putting up a 3.54 ERA and 1.11 WHIP over eight starts.
His showing impressed the organization enough that when Class-AAA Rochester -- locked in a tight pennant race and facing a must-win situation on Sunday -- desperately needed a starter to get them a victory, it was Berrios that they looked to. At age 20, the kid was starting in a high-stakes Triple-A contest.
Berrios didn't fare well in the outing, coughing up six runs in three innings, but that's not particularly surprising nor worrisome. Simply putting himself in position to start that game was an incredible feat that frankly ought to be generating a lot more buzz than I've seen.
What I find especially encouraging about Berrios is that an aspect of his game most experts expected to be a weakness has thus far proven to be perhaps his greatest strength. As a relatively short (6'0") specimen who lacks ground ball tendencies, prospect analysts suggested that he was likely to start giving up home runs in bunches once he began facing advanced hitters.
On the contrary, however, Berrios has shown an astonishing ability to keep the ball in the yard. Last year at Cedar Rapids he allowed only six home runs in 19 starts. This year, he yielded the same number in 25 starts. Somehow his ability to limit the long ball has only improved as he has climbed the ladder; in eight starts (40 innings) in Double-A, Berrios was taken deep only twice, by experienced hitters who were more than four years older than him on average. And despite a rough go in his lone Triple-A outing, he didn't give up a bomb.
While the young Berrios was rising meteorically this summer, Meyer was working through a season that was encouraging in many ways but not as overwhelmingly successful. Although he led the International League in strikeout rate, whiffing 27 percent of opposing batters, he also posted the worst walk rate of his career and never showed the ability to pitch deep into games over a prolonged period. He completed six innings only once in his final seven starts. That's not exactly ideal for a 24-year-old in Triple-A.
Meyer still has the best stuff of any pitcher in the system, by most accounts, and probably maintains the highest upside. But Berrios has moved past the point of being that young, undersized kid tearing up the low levels of the minors. What he did this season -- rising through three levels at the age of 20 -- is nothing short of amazing.
Suddenly, unlikely as it may be, he's in a position where he could conceivably debut in the majors next year at age 21. For the record, only Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano have pitched for the Twins at such a young age in the past 20 years.
What do you think? Has Berrios surpassed Meyer as the team's top pitching prospect?
At 27, Schafer was back with his original organization to begin the 2014 season and was pressed to find a consistent role. He would start in just 14 of the 63 games he would play in for the Braves. Offensively, his career hit a jagged rock bottom when he could not hit anything. Perhaps it was pressing to do too much in order to gain more playing time but Schafer’s swing rate increased exponentially as he offered at every other pitch regardless of where it may be located.
Is this stretch a breakout or a blip?
With the sample size as miniscule as it is, it is easy to consider this streak one of those sample sample size flukes. There certainly is an element of that, no question, however with the regular playing time, Schafer has seemingly shorn up his wild swing (reducing his chase rate from 33% to 25%) and increased his connectivity (dropping his swing-and-miss rate from 31% to 22%). What’s more is that the contact is far better has his line drive rate has jumped (from 16% to 28%) as has his hard-hit average (from .084 to .162). These are solid progress marks.
When the Braves had re-obtained the outfielder in 2013, Schafer confessed to falling into bad habits at the plate that dragged down his numbers. He was trying to pull the ball far too often and lost the ability to drive the ball up the middle and to the opposite field. Turning over when being pitched away resulted in groundouts instead of base hits where he could showcase his blazing speed. He reached out to Braves’ hitting coach Greg Walker to help fix this.
While he showed a better ability to go the other way in 2013 but a foul ball off his ankle led to a stress fracture that sidelined him for 31 days that year, Schafer never came back the same and it seemed his sound approach at the plate he displayed before the injury had disappeared. Opposing teams in the National League exploited Schafer’s overzealous approach and targeted the outer half of the zone:
According to ESPN/TruMedia, when being pitched on the outer-half (middle and away), Schafer pounded a vast majority of those into the ground, yanking almost 50% of those balls in play and predictably performed poorly (6-for-52, .115).
Maybe it was because of regularly scheduled at-bats or a sweet nothing that Twins hitting coach Tom Brunansky whispered in his ear, but after the Twins got their hooks into him, Schafer turned things around, particularly in this area. On pitches on the outer-half, Schafer has driven those to the middle of the field (60%) which has yielded plenty of hits (14-for-39, .359).
As an example, here is a clip of Schafer versus Joba Chamberlain in which Schafer -- rather than turning over on the pitch -- stays behind the ball to intentionally drive the pitch to the spacious 5.5 hole where the third baseman is drawn in and the shortstop is playing at double-play depth.
What does the future hold for Schafer and the Twins?
After his performance against the Royals, manager Ron Gardenhire said that the organization is going to continue to feed him playing time for the rest of the year and see how he responds.
“That’s what we’re trying to figure out here. We’re letting him play and giving him plenty of at bats and he’s responding and he’s doing well,” Gardenhire told reporters after the game, “You see him running the bases, he can fly -- he scored on that ball late in the game there. He was absolutely flying, I thought he had no chance to score. He has a lot of talent and we’re going to see how he does here the rest of the way for us. And we’ll to kind of figure out how he fits in this organization. We like the young man, he’s come over here and he’s shown some of his skills.”
So we will see more of Schafer in September and the Twins will make an evaluation on what to do with him heading into 2015. He might not be a starter but he could be a very good contributor both defensively and offensively.
Here's the lineup that Ron Gardenhire has written out for each of the last three games:
Danny Santana, CF
Brian Dozier, 2B
Joe Mauer, 1B
Kennys Vargas, DH
Oswaldo Arcia, RF
Trevor Plouffe, 3B
Kurt Suzuki, C
Eduardo Escobar, SS
Jordan Schafer, LF
Each of those players remains under team control for 2015 and, with the exception of Schafer, each has a strong case to deservingly remain a starter going forward.
There are a few positions that carry some uncertainty, most notably third base and center field (I continue to believe Santana should go to short with Escobar sliding into a utility role), but Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton figure to come along and entrench themselves at some point during the season.
The only position where the Twins clearly need some help is left field. One possibility is that Aaron Hicks will end up there, but it's a bit hard to count on him at this point. Eddie Rosario is another candidate but he's probably still a ways off.
So the Twins would be smart to pursue an impact outfielder during the offseason, but the rest of the starting lineup appears to be pretty much locked in. And, similarly, there isn't much room for additions on the pitching staff.
Sure, preventing runs has once again been an issue for the Twins this year. But are they really going to spend big money on bringing in another starting pitcher when they've already got Phil Hughes, Ricky Nolasco, Kyle Gibson, Tommy Milone, Trevor May, Alex Meyer and Mike Pelfrey all set to return to the mix (and Jose Berrios potentially emerging as an option midseason)? At most, I could see the team taking a couple low-cost gambles, but it doesn't make much sense to keep adding guaranteed contracts to that group.
Ditto for the bullpen. This unit will be bringing back some core members -- Glen Perkins, Casey Fien, Caleb Thielbar, Anthony Swarzak, possibly Brian Duensing -- and they've got a handful of options currently in Triple-A that are at least as appealing as the majority of arms that will be available in free agency.
With an $85 million payroll this year, the Twins are well below their spending limit, even by their own admission. That means they will have money available to spend this offseason, but as long as there aren't any major changes in the final month, and as long as no one is traded, there will be few places to spend it.
The takeaways from this overview?
1) Don't freak out if the Twins don't throw money around this offseason. For the first time in several years, a quiet winter would actually be quite justifiable, because...
2) The rebuild is finally coming together. Capable young players are starting to fill every position, and that's why -- despite the lack of on-field success -- the final months of this season are proving much more satisfying than years past.
Aaron and John talk about Terry Ryan all but saying Ron Gardenhire will be back in 2015, broadcast live from the Touch Em All Pub Crawl with a variety of guests, and discuss what they want to see in September including Joe Mauer, Danny Santana, Aaron Hicks, Phil Hughes, Brian Dozier, Ricky Nolasco, Kyle Gibson, Alex Meyer, Trevor May, and Josmil Pinto.You can listen by downloading us from iTunes,Stitcher or find it at GleemanAndTheGeek.com. Or just click the Play button below.
Over at Twins Daily, you can hear about the Twins Daily Pub Crawl, catch up on the minor leagues or help our members figure out what the Twins will do in left field next year.
And at Vikings Journal, Arif Hasan has the most complete recap of Saturday's Vikings game that you'll read anywhere and Bo talks about the the Viking that is en route to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
It has been his ability to drive the ball with total disregard for human life that has made his plate appearances “must see” events, as far as “must see” events go this season anyway. At the same time, it has been his inability to make contact with the ball for the bulk of the season that has come at a heavy price to his overall numbers. While he has deposited a ball in the seats in every 20 at-bats, he’s whiffed in just under every three.
Arcia’s strength has been prevalent throughout his professional career. In the minors he displayed a more balanced approached at the plate with less of a leg-lift stride that allowed him to use all fields. Of course, Arcia has eschewed this style for his prefered all-or-nothing pull approach at the major league level that has paid off well as of late.
Take a look at his follow through earlier this season:
His front side opens far too much -- particularly on a pitch that was middle-in in the example above. This pitch was an off-speed that Arcia did not stay back on and flew open in a failed attempt to yank it on to Nicollet Mall. If he continued to do this, he would see a reduced coverage on the outer-half of the plate (which he did) and this is something that can been seen throughout his at bats early in the season.
As I pointed out in June, because Arcia drops his hands, he has already shown a weakness to fastballs up in the zone and the Twins were trying to fix that issue as well. By the end of July, he was hitting a paltry .219/.299/.383. Needless to say, here was a lot to work on for the talented young slugger and, if his August numbers have anything to say about it, he appears to have had turned a corner.
While Arcia’s focus may be on pulling the ball with ferocity, manager Ron Gardenhire has said that he would like the outfielder to temper his swing instead of trying to hit the ball “8,000 miles”. Though some may interpret that as an attempt to convert Arcia from a power hitter into a punch-and-judy slapper, the reality is the Twins were looking for him to stay in on the pitch in order to drive the ball. Since August 1, this message apparently has resonated with Arcia and he has remained closed instead of flying open:
This practice should be enable him to handle left-handed pitchers, who up to this point have been the bane of his existence.
The 23-year-old Arcia is making progress at the plate and it could spell more offense for the Twins in 2015.
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