The hitting prospects monopolize most of the spotlight. Twins fans know all about Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Max Kepler, Eddie Rosario and all the other youngsters who will be in the lineup someday.
But the Twins' front office is quietly counting on the emergence of another group of fledgling big leaguers to shore up a nagging problem: the bullpen. A crop of hard-throwing but young relief pitchers, many of them drafted en masse nearly four summers ago, is approaching MLB readiness, and the Twins expect at least some of them eventually to turn a weakness into a strength.
"I've heard a lot of them have showed signs of being really close," Twins manager Paul Molitor said last week. "I'm looking forward to getting a look at them."
He'll get his chance next month, when such pitchers as Mason Melotakis, Nick Burdi, J.T. Chargois and Jake Reed — each of them between 23 and 25 years old with mid- to upper-90s velocity and a strikeout mentality — take part in their first big-league camp, hoping for a breakout performance. Alex Meyer and Michael Tonkin, a pair of tall 26-year-olds with strikeout stuff, will try to show they've learned from their experience, however brief, with the Twins, too.
But even if all those young arms eventually form the nucleus of a contending-caliber bullpen, as the Twins' scouting staff expects, Molitor knows better than to expect minor league success to translate to American League hitters, at least right away.
"I've got to be a little bit careful. Like I said last year with Sano, Buxton, Rosario — I'll be excited when they get here," the manager said. "But I can't start thinking about what my bullpen is going to look like in June. April matters just as much."
That's why he hoped the Twins might add some veteran bullpen help over the winter, something that hasn't happened so far. General Manager Terry Ryan has inquired about a handful of free-agent pitchers but ultimately added only a few camp invitees with big-league experience: former A's reliever Fernando Abad, ex-Giant Dan Runzler, former Angel Buddy Boshers — all lefthanders with impressive fastballs but occasionally problematic control. Righthander Brandon Kintzler, a longtime Brewer, will get a look, too.
"I don't think it's gone exactly how Terry thought it would go. We had some aspirations to do some things — I heard him talk about the lefthanded side a lot," Molitor said. "There are still some people out there. You never know what could happen, but I'm not going to count on that. I do know that there are people who feel the group we have now, with the people who are coming in — the feeling is that we should be fine holding down the fort until some of the [prospects] are ready to help us."
Count Ryan among them. The general manager understands, he said, the clamor among Twins fans for adding free-agent help, but said he believes the Twins' bullpen, despite ranking 10th in ERA (3.95) and last in strikeouts (392) in the AL last season, could be a strength in 2016, whether any of the youngsters are ready or not.
"I'm not going to say those guys will surface this year. I suspect some of them will, but regardless, they're prospects. We're not counting on prospects to get us to the playoffs," Ryan said. "[Glen] Perkins will be healthy again, [Kevin] Jepsen showed he's a reliable guy, Trevor May could be there. We're not talking about young guys, we're not talking about 21-year-olds. We've got quality, experienced guys, more than people think. We've got numbers, and it's just a matter of who makes the club."
He listed Casey Fien, Ryan O'Rourke, and Ryan Pressly as strong candidates for mid-inning roles, along with Tonkin, Meyer and lefthander Taylor Rogers, who won 11 games as a starter for Class AAA Rochester last year but could transition to a bullpen role in Minnesota.
"We've got a lot of guys to look at," Molitor said. "You always hope the competition brings out the best in them."