Twins closer Brandon Kintzler deserved to be selected as an American League All-Star this season. Even though he wasn’t picked, he remains one of the great stories in Major League Baseball.
At 32, he’s having his best season in the major leagues, posting a 2.35 ERA with 23 saves in 38 appearances, and next season he will become an unrestricted free agent. He is being paid $2.9 million this season, but the word is the team hasn’t made a move to sign him to a longer contract.
He’s going to get a big payday from someone, and it’s amazing to think he became a closer for manager Paul Molitor only last season.
After he was granted free agency in October of 2015 after six years with the Brewers, Kintzler signed with the Twins two months later. He didn’t make the team out of spring training — shoulder surgery forced him to miss most of 2015 with the Brewers — but Kintzler posted a 3.52 ERA in 15⅓ innings at Class AAA Rochester before being called up by the Twins.
He recalled what it was like to have to go back to the minors in 2016 at age 31.
“It has been a long way since that day,” Kintzler said. “It is what it is. I mean, I knew the business side. It would be tough to break camp [with the Twins], but I knew if I put up numbers and stayed healthy, I would get an opportunity.
“And then [Molitor] gave me plenty of opportunities in big situations, and I just tried to take advantage of it.”
Since being drafted by San Diego in the 40th round of the 2004 MLB draft, Kintzler has played at every level of baseball. He started at Rookie and Class A ball before being released in 2006. In 2007 he resurfaced in the American Association, playing with Winnipeg and then the St. Paul Saints in 2009, where he went 8-3 with a 2.79 ERA in 14 games, including 11 as a starter.
That got him into the Milwaukee minor league system and, in 2010, he joined the Brewers. But the 2015 shoulder injury set him back.
“I missed all of the year before because of surgery, so it was going to take a little time for my body to basically get in baseball shape and start pitching better,” he said about his time at Rochester. “My velocity started to come [back]. It was right before they called me up, so it was perfect timing for me and I was ready to go.”
Ever since then, Kintzler has tried to make an impression by staying ready and aggressive.
“I was just trying to attack the zone,” he said. “When you first get called up, you’re just trying to make a name for yourself and show the manager you can be on this team and stick. For a guy in my situation, and for a team struggling, I was definitely ready to take advantage of any opportunity. This game forgets about you real quick. As soon as you get set back, everyone forgets about your name.”
For a player to make his way from the Saints to being tied for the AL saves lead this season speaks volumes about Kintzler’s work ethic, but he said he had to learn that over time. He knows how quickly a player can be out of the majors.
So how does he handle that possibility?
“I think I don’t take myself too seriously, and I think a lot of closers take themselves too serious,” he said. “I know this game is very humbling to where I’ve been to the bottom of baseball to the top. If you take yourself too serious — ‘Oh, I’m a closer now’ — the game will humble you real quick and you’ll be back in independent ball.
“My good friend Kevin Jepsen [a former Twins closer and nine-year MLB veteran] two years ago was closing and now he might be sitting at home right now. Things happen real fast if you don’t stay on top of your game.”
Kintzler and the rest of the Twins pitching staff have seen the difference a great defense can make this season. He talked about the improvement over last year.
“We’ve been in some [visiting] bullpens where you can’t really see the outfield, and you’ll see a ball hit in the gap and then you just think that’s an automatic double or a homer,” he said. “All of a sudden the crowd just is going nuts and you see [center fielder Byron] Buxton flying across the outfield and running into the dugout [and we’re saying] ‘Did he catch that?’ and ‘Oh my gosh.’
“Those guys, they’re working hard before the game and work on their routes and their jumps. I think for me, it’s a big thing for everyone to make a play, but you make a mistake and you have those guys in the outfield that can track those balls down that would normally be doubles. It’s a good feeling. You don’t put too much pressure on yourself knowing you have those guys and they have your back.”
He added that his success always depends on the starters and relievers pitching before him who give him a chance to close.
“Good teams need a good bullpen, and our guys in the sixth, seventh, eighth inning have been doing a great job of giving me a chance to close the game out,” Kintzler said. “I think that’s a really big thing.”
• Burnsville pitcher Sam Carlson, who was the Star Tribune’s Metro Player of the Year and won the Minnesota Mr. Baseball award, reported to the Seattle Mariners’ farm team in the Arizona League on Tuesday but is only throwing bullpen sessions thus far.
• Shane Turner, the Giants’ director of player development, says former Gopher D.J. Snelten has been the best reliever in the San Francisco farm system. Snelten, who was drafted by the Giants in the ninth round in 2013, was 4-1 with a 1.66 ERA in 15 appearances for the Giants’ Richmond farm team in the Class AA Eastern League before being promoted to Sacramento of the Class AAA Pacific Coast League. With Sacramento, he is 1-0 with a 2.13 ERA in 17 appearances.
• Former Gophers pitcher Tom Windle, who was a second-round draft choice by the Dodgers in 2013, is 2-2 with one save and a 5.66 ERA for the Phillies’ Reading farm team in the Class AA Eastern League. Since coming off the disabled list in mid-June, Windle has a 2.45 ERA and a save in seven appearances.
• Gophers sophomore Terrin Vavra returned to action in the Cape Cod League with Cotuit after suffering a concussion on opening night June 14. Vavra, the son of Twins bench coach Joe Vavra, is hitting .167 in six games. … Gophers infielder Micah Coffey, who was a junior this season, is hitting .333 for Hyannis of the Cape Cod League. … Seven Gophers are playing in the Northwoods League.