SAN DIEGO – Brandon Kintzler was feeding rhinos at a safari park in San Diego with his pregnant wife, Melissa, when the call came Monday, and mixed emotions followed.
The All-Star closer was being traded to Washington for a pitching prospect. While he was fine with staying with the Twins and seeing if they could get hot and make things interesting, he is headed to a team with the second-best record in the National League.
“I love it here, the coaching staff and everyone here,” Kintzler said. “It is what it is. I could always come back here [as a free agent] if it works out.
“But I get to go to a first-place team with a chance to go to the playoffs and do some things. That’s what we play for.”
The Twins shipped Kintzler in return for lefthander Tyler Watson, who has struck out 9.7 batters per nine innings in two-plus years as a pro. He was ranked as the Nationals’ 17th-best prospect by MLB.com. The Twins also received $500,000 in international signing bonus money, which can be used for this current period.
It was the Twins’ second deal to send away a veteran pitcher in as many days; they sent lefthander Jaime Garcia to the Yankees on Sunday. The trades came two days after General Manager Thad Lavine said the team faced an “unfortunate reality” in its chase for a playoff berth.
The Twins are 2-7 in their past nine games and sit 6½ games out in the American League Central.
It’s been quite an ascension for Kintzler, whose career included a stop with the St. Paul Saints in 2009. He signed with the Twins as a minor league free agent before the 2016 season, made the team, took over as closer last year and made the AL All-Star team this season.
Kintzler, 32, is 2-2 with a 2.78 ERA and 28 saves, third-best in the major leagues. He is making $2.93 million this year.
Among those Kintzler needed to speak with included bullpen coach Eddie Guardado, who mentored the righthander through his transition to closer. “I haven’t called Eddie yet,” Kintzler said. “That one is going to be a little emotional.”
Watson, listed at 6-5 and 200 pounds, is intriguing since he is only 20 with the ability to strike hitters out. He was a 34th-round pick in 2015 out of Perry High School in Gilbert, Ariz. He will be assigned to Class A Cedar Rapids.
“We felt we found a guy in Tyler Watson who has a chance to be a long-term starter,” said Derek Falvey, the Twins chief baseball officer. “We’ll see where it goes. … The long-term view of him is that there’s a lot more growth in there.”
The deal was completed with just a few minutes remaining before the 3 p.m. deadline. A few other teams had expressed interest in Kintzler, including Boston and Arizona, in recent days.
In eight days, the Twins sent righthander Huascar Ynoa to Atlanta for Garcia and catcher Anthony Recker; sent catcher John Ryan Murphy to Arizona for lefthander Gabriel Moya; flipped Garcia to the Yankees for righthander Zack Littell and lefthander Dietrich Enns; and dealt for Watson. That’s four pitching prospects and a backup catcher.
“That was one of our targeted and stated goals, going back to when we first arrived,” Falvey said. “We felt like we had some young position player talent. We felt we had a group that could continue to compete. We felt there were areas and opportunities to improve our pitchers at different levels.”
Kintzler’s trade, of course, leaves the Twins without a closer. They already are ranked 28th in bullpen ERA. The Twins have been outscored 15-2 after the fifth inning during their current road trip, a direct reflection on the relievers. Manager Paul Molitor might go with the committee approach until someone emerges from the pack, although Taylor Rogers and Tyler Duffey — Kintzler’s chief setup men — figure to get a look.
Then there’s the clubhouse fallout. Some Twins players still hoped to get on a roll even after Garcia was dealt Sunday. But they then blew a five-run lead against the A’s to fall to 1-5 on their road trip, and now Kintzler is off to a real pennant chase.
“It’s tough because Brandon has helped us save a lot of games,” first baseman Joe Mauer said. “It’s going to be an opportunity for someone else. We still have 59 games left to go. We still can do some things. We have to stay positive and keep playing.
“… Brandon will be missed. But I’m still planning on winning ballgames.”