Amid the wreckage of a 10-4 deficit in Game 1 of the AL Division Series last October, Derek Falvey still found a credible reason to get excited about his team and its future.
Brusdar Graterol, not yet six weeks past his 21st birthday, took the mound for the Twins in the eighth inning that night in the Bronx and proceeded to announce his arrival as a formidable relief pitcher. Facing Brett Gardner, Edwin Encarnacion and Cameron Maybin — three players with more combined seasons in the major leagues than Graterol had days there — the rookie needed only 18 pitches — 16 of them strikes, 11 of them registering 100 mph and only one, a routine fly ball, put into play — to make a memorable impression.
“When he was pitching in Yankee Stadium, in the late innings of a playoff game, he looked like he was pitching on a back field in Fort Myers. That’s not easy to do,” said Falvey, the Twins’ president of baseball operations who had promoted the righthander to the majors just one month earlier. “I don’t care what the score is or what the situation is, to be able to pump strikes in that moment, it said a lot about him. That was really valuable for him, and he showed us so much.”
Now he’d like to show them so much more. Graterol, whose world-class velocity has made him the Twins’ top pitching prospect for the past couple of years, has a good chance of making the major league roster this spring, mostly by sticking to that relief role.
“I hope he does. You hate to say that guys have to make the team in camp, because then they start trying to do more than they’re capable, or more than they should. You want them to get their work in, stay with the program, take their time,” Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson said. “But let’s be real, there are always one or two spots in spring training that are available for someone to get. If he does what he’s supposed to, if he attacks hitters, throws strikes, gets guys out, I could definitely see him making the club.”
Graterol can see it, too, and smiles at that prospect. “I really enjoyed it. I learned a lot, and if they give me the opportunity to do it again, that’s what I’ll do,” he said Friday at TwinsFest. “I’ll do whatever is asked of me.”
As exciting as it is, this isn’t the way Graterol expected to reach the major leagues. The stocky Venezuelan has been a starting pitcher since signing with the Twins in 2015, and scouts expected him eventually to join the Twins’ rotation. He doesn’t mind the switch, not if it means pitching in Minnesota instead of Class AAA. But the Twins aren’t certain yet whether it’s permanent.
Graterol underwent Tommy John elbow ligament surgery in 2016, missed nearly a year and a half, and has pitched only about 200 innings in the minor leagues since returning. The Twins are leery of putting too much stress on that elbow, particularly because Graterol uses an unusual whipping motion to produce his amazing velocity.
So Johnson wants to tutor Graterol an inning at a time.
“We feel that because it is such a violent delivery, if we can clean up some arm stuff, that’s kind of like step one,” Johnson said. “Shorter stints, make sure he’s throwing the right way, and let him get comfortable up here. Right now, I don’t think it would be fair to throw him out there for extended innings.”
Johnson met Graterol in Tampa last week, watched him throw a bullpen session, and liked what he saw.
“It’s still a violent delivery. We’re not trying to get him away from that, but we have some things to quote-unquote clean it up a little bit and make it a little healthier,” Johnson said. “He was really impressive last week. It’s exciting. We’re not changing anything fundamental, but there are things we can do to put him in a better position to be effective and stay healthy.”
And though getting 200 innings from a starting pitcher is probably more valuable than 70 innings from a high-leverage reliever, Falvey understands that a healthy Graterol, in any role, is more valuable than an injured one.
“You have to think about what kind of starter can a guy be. In some cases, a high-velocity starter, you have to look at mechanics, at how durable you think he’s going to be. Could you build him up to 150, 170, 190 innings?” Falvey said. “It’s a balance: What’s best for the player, what’s best for the team, what you think he can handle over the course of his career.
“Is he a future closer? Maybe,” Falvey added. “The nice thing is, he’s 21. We don’t have to make that decision yet.”