FORT MYERS, Fla. – Take a step back and the dissonance sounds crazy.
The Twins pitching staff has been the American League’s least effective over the past decade, was in the bottom half of the league last year as usual, and the front office responded by appointing a manager who has never run a bullpen, provided him with a pitching coach who has never worked with professionals and barely tinkered with the roster of personnel they’re putting on the mound.
Yet the optimism in the clubhouse, in the dugout and in the bullpen is relentlessly buoyant and earnestly sincere.
“I see a room full of talent,” insists righthanded reliever Trevor May. “I see the makings of a great season.”
So does the executive who chose to double-down, for the most part, on the staff he already had in place, who passed up, and continues to pass up, pricier alternatives on the free-agent market.
“Our group is good enough to put us in a position to compete all year. I do believe that,” said Derek Falvey, the Twins chief baseball officer. “Are there some staffs that you look at and go, ‘I wish I had a couple more of that version of a guy?’ Sure. But I would say that’s probably true in a lot of places with teams that are competing.”
Yet except for the procurement of a Rangers castoff named Martin Perez to join the rotation, the signing of a righthanded setup man named Blake Parker who is joining his fifth major league team and the greenlighting of a Tommy John patient named Michael Pineda to ramp up a post-surgery comeback, Falvey stuck with the primary pitchers who allowed the ninth-most runs in the AL last year.
Why, then, do the Twins exude a confidence seemingly out of proportion to their past performances?
“Because players get better, especially the young guys,” rookie manager Rocco Baldelli said last month. “Sometimes it’s just as simple as that.”
New pitching coach takes big step
The Twins believe Jose Berrios, already an All-Star at 24, has the makings of a latter-day Johan Santana, with high velocity and knee-buckling breaking pitches. They expect Taylor Rogers, still only 28 with 200 big-league games behind him, to develop into their own version of Andrew Miller, a lefthander who can dominate, not just specialize. They foresee Kyle Gibson turning last year’s breakout into this year’s ordinary, a foundational pitcher whose success is as metronomic as his windup.
And their faith in this transformation begins with their selection of Wes Johnson, the first pitching coach ever to go directly from a college campus to a major league dugout.
“The résumé wasn’t important to us — it was the knowledge, the analysis and the ability to communicate that to players,” Falvey said. “The most important thing we can do as a front office is acquire the best talent possible, but then it’s about developing that raw ability into a successful player. Wes is someone who has a deep knowledge of all aspects of pitching, from arm mechanics to pitch shaping, and he has a track record of taking young college players and making them better. There’s no reason someone like that couldn’t have the same effect at this level.”
The Twins armed Johnson, 48, with high-speed cameras and radar pitch-tracking devices, all to gather information that he can use to explain to pitchers how better to use their natural ability. Johnson, along with assistant pitching coach Jeremy Hefner, quickly ingratiated himself with his new players, by poring over hours of video and developing ideas that they can use to greater effect on the mound.
“If somebody said, ‘Hey, here’s the path for you to get better at your job, and you lay out the plan and the evidence for it, are you going to say, ‘Nah, I don’t need it?’ Aren’t you interested in improving?” Johnson said. “This business, it’s so competitive, so that’s the way we’ve attacked this. We give them the why, we give them the how, and they see the evidence themselves. And now they’re seeing progress.”
Low expectations, high optimism
It’ll take more of it to convince fans and opponents, though. Most projections dump the Twins to the bottom of the pitching heap again.
“Our bullpen is going to be better than what people are giving us credit for,” said Rogers, who didn’t allow a run after July 28 last season, a streak of 26 straight scoreless innings that he’ll take into 2019. “I don’t know how it got that [reputation]. Maybe because we’re the Twins.”
Well, he may have something there. Only one major league team has surrendered more runs in the past decade than the beleaguered Twins, and that team pitches at mile-high altitude in Denver, an understandable handicap. Down here closer to sea level, Twins’ pitching has ranked last in the AL in staff ERA twice and second to last three times, and in the bottom half of the league nine times. The problem is staff-wide, too — the bullpen ranks 13th over the past decade, the starters one spot worse.
Last year? A 4.50 ERA as a team ranked 22nd in the majors.
“We know the numbers. … But we feel pretty good about this group coming into 2019,” Falvey said. “Do we need guys to continue to take steps forward? Yeah. If you look around at some of the best pitching staffs in the game, we have to get better.”
The presence of Berrios and Gibson, even though the latter righthander has been fighting off the effects of E. coli poisoning that reduced his weight and sapped his strength, gives the rotation credibility up front. Pineda, a solid but rarely spectacular starter for the Yankees before elbow surgery, gives the Twins their hardest-throwing starter in some time; his spring has added to the optimism. And fourth starter Jake Odorizzi has leaned on analytics to tinker with his mechanics and correct his strike-throwing problems of 2018.
No rush to choose a closer
Baldelli’s inexperience at handling a staff as manager makes projecting bullpen usage particularly uncertain. But that’s an opportunity, not necessarily a dilemma, Falvey said, because the new manager can avoid assigning rigid roles to each reliever. With Opening Day upon us, the Twins still have no clear closer, for instance, and Baldelli seems in no hurry to anoint one.
“We have some very good arms we can choose from,” Baldelli said, citing Trevor Hildenberger, Parker, May and Rogers, all of whom have ninth-inning experience. “Sometimes you can anticipate how things are going to go, but sometimes you have to play things by ear. … We’ll try to use the person who gives us the best chance of winning each night, and if someone is that person consistently, we’ll let that happen organically.”
Baldelli said he and Johnson have spoken to each bullpen member and outlined their plans; some players know, for instance, that they’ll be used late in games, the better to prepare themselves. Others, such as converted starter Adalberto Mejia, are being groomed for less predictable use.
“He’s like a Ben Zobrist or a Marwin Gonzalez, [position players] who play multiple positions. They’re more valuable, right?” Johnson said. “Mejia has a track record of starting, and we’re not taking that away from him. We’re adding to his value, we’re adding to the ways he can help us.”
Falvey specialized in pitching analysis while he was in Cleveland’s front office, and had a role in building the Indians’ strong staff.
“A lot of things we’re doing here are different [from that experience], because the game has changed so quickly,” he said. “But trying new things, looking for better ways — that part hasn’t changed.”