The wisdom of crowds — and statistics — suggested the Twins had three major areas that they either could or should address as last month’s non-waiver trade deadline approached: shortstop, catcher and the bullpen.
Kurt Suzuki, after a nice first half of 2014 that netted him an All-Star appearance at Target Field, dropped off considerably in the second half and had a .590 OPS in late July this year — nearly 100 points below the MLB average for a catcher.
At shortstop, the Twins had started with Danny Santana and tried both Eduardo Escobar and Eduardo Nunez. They even gave Jorge Polanco a brief audition. Santana was a disaster at the plate and in the field (16 errors in 64 starts). None of the others had distinguished themselves in 2015 as a clear-cut starter, with Escobar’s offensive numbers lagging after a strong 2014 season holding down the position. Escobar’s OPS of .653 in late July was about 30 points below the league average for shortstops.
And the bullpen, after good work during the Twins’ hot 42-game stretch early in the season, was fading. Glen Perkins, nearly unhittable before the All-Star break, blew two saves and took two losses between July 18 and July 28. Their bullpen ERA in June was 4.38 and in July it was 4.15.
Of those three areas, of course, the Twins upgraded just one at the deadline — and one that appeared tepid, at best, when they grabbed righthanded reliever Kevin Jepsen from Tampa Bay.
It is a cliche to suggest that the best trades are sometimes the ones you don’t make, but in the case of the Twins and their approach to shortstop and catcher, it appears to be true. And in the case of Jepsen, the trade has had a far greater impact than most of us initially thought it would.
I don’t know exactly how close the Twins were to making moves at catcher or shortstop or really who was available for what price. What I do know is that if the Twins took a calculated risk that Suzuki and Escobar had underperformed to that point in the season and were therefore statistically likely to surge after the deadline — therefore providing the kind of upgrade they could have hoped for in a trade — it paid off in both cases.
Escobar is the most dramatic example. Even before his two-homer game Wednesday, his August OPS was .812 as he claimed a much stronger hold on the shortstop job. With Thursday factored in, Escobar since the trade deadline is now slashing .292/.554/.915 and has his overall season OPS (though not all at-bats came as a shortstop) is up to .712 — about 30 points higher now than the MLB average for a shortstop.
OPS is not an end-all stat, but it is a good reference point for offensive success. Suzuki had a .690 career OPS going into this season. Much of that was bolstered by better seasons at the plate earlier in his career than in recent years, but his .727 mark last season at least gave the Twins hope that his .590 pre-deadline mark was bound to improve. That is exactly what has happened so far. Suzuki’s slash line of .279/.361/.694 since the trade deadline won’t win him any awards, but it compares reasonably well to the MLB averages for catchers in 2015: .240/.382/.685. He’s had several clutch hits this month — yes, those can be circumstantial, particularly in a small sample — including a huge two-run single to rally the Twins over Baltimore in the second game of what has become a six-game winning streak.
The bullpen help offered by Jepsen has proven to be the thing the Twins really needed to go outside the organization to get. It’s not to say they couldn’t be where they are now without it, but it’s hard to imagine navigating the past few weeks — in particular the last week with Glen Perkins unavailable much of the time with neck and back issues — without Jepsen. Since his forgettable first outing with the Twins (two runs allowed in just 1/3 of an inning), he’s been lights out. He’s pitched in a rather remarkable 13 games in the last 23 days (Aug. 4 through Wednesday) with this line: 12.1 IP, 5 hits, 0 runs, 2 BB, 10 Ks, 2 holds, 3 saves.
Included in that: Jepsen has pitched in each of the Twins’ last five games, all wins. All three saves have come in the last five games. Two were one-run wins and another was a two-run win, and he has had 1-2-3 innings in all of them. He also pitched in the other two games, finishing the 11-7 win with a scoreless ninth and providing a scoreless 10th in the 12-inning win at Baltimore. So yes, imagine this winning streak without Jepsen. Does it happen? Doubtful.
Long story short: While many of us ripped the Twins for not doing enough at the deadline while other teams made splashy moves, their one lower-key move to get Jepsen (added to in August during the waiver trade period with the Neal Cotts acquisition) and faith in their in-house talent has put them (for now) in prime postseason position.