An unexpected Twins anniversary passed Tuesday, a date that Paul Molitor probably didn’t notice, but he surely appreciated. May 23 marked exactly one month since the Twins called up Kennys Vargas from the minors and provided Molitor with something increasingly rare around the majors: a four-man bench.
Yes, 13 position players, enabling Molitor to utilize on most days an extra catcher, outfielder and two infielders. Not since 2013 have the Twins lasted so deep into a season with such versatility, and it already has paid dividends: Vargas provided a pinch-hit home run in the ninth inning earlier this month to tie the score against the Royals in a game the Twins won in extra innings. In a normal season, the switch-hitting slugger might not have been on the roster, available for such heroics.
Molitor is enjoying the luxury of a deep bench so much, he even frets about keeping everybody engaged.
“The challenge right now is that we’ve got 12 guys kind of in the mix, [and I’m] trying to keep everybody feeling they’re a part of it,” the manager said last week. “Maybe be a little creative.”
What’s particularly creative, though, is how the Twins initially created that extra roster spot for Vargas, and it’s a development that might foreshadow how teams juggle their personnel in the future. In years past, a fourth bench player was sacrificed in order to add an eighth pitcher to the bullpen, a necessity, teams often feel, in this era of short relief appearances.
The Twins carried eight relievers all season until Saturday. Instead, they had made room for an extra position player by carrying fewer starting pitchers. Vargas was originally called up when Adalberto Mejia was first sent down to Class AAA Rochester, and from then on they didn’t carry five starters until Mejia returned.
“It feels like we’ve had a three-man rotation at times,” Molitor joked.
That odd trend was made possible by five rainouts and six scheduled off days in the season’s first seven weeks, enabling only three pitchers — Ervin Santana, Hector Santiago and Phil Hughes — to make two-thirds of the team’s starts.
But the Twins knew they couldn’t keep skipping the back end of the rotation indefinitely, not with the schedule becoming more jammed. To make room for Mejia, they opted to shrink their bullpen instead of their bench by designating lefthander Adam Wilk for assignment.
Still, it highlights the roster creativity that more teams are using now, an effort to wring more than 25 players’ worth of productivity out of 25 roster spots. The need for more relievers has prompted proposals for expanding MLB rosters to 26 players, or even 27 with an NBA-style “inactive list” for each game. Owners have been resistant, though, figuring more players equals more payroll.
The Dodgers have found a different route to “expanding” their roster: The new 10-day disabled list. Los Angeles has a staff of seven starting pitchers, many of them injury-prone, and already has placed five of them on the DL, essentially allowing those with minor injuries — Hyun-Jin Ryu had a bruised hip, for instance — to just miss one start and return.
Los Angeles starters have the third-best ERA in the majors, so expect more teams to mimic the Dodgers’ approach; use of the DL is already up significantly this year. Expect some to copy the Twins’ short-your-rotation method, too, when schedules allow. As long as rosters feel so restrictive, major league teams will install revolving doors in the clubhouse.
The Twins have gotten a boost this month by dipping into their farm system for Jose Berrios, who won his first three starts of the season. A few other names you could be hearing soon in the AL Central:
Indians: Cleveland’s top prospect Bradley Zimmer (above) — a plus-defender in center field, where defense has been a problem — was recalled last week when Austin Jackson was injured. The former first-round pick, 6-for-21 with a home run in his first exposure to the majors, might not stick now, but he will be in the lineup for good soon.
Royals: While Alcides Escobar crawls along with an offense-killing .210 on-base percentage in the leadoff spot, Ramon Torres is batting .306 at Class AAA Omaha, and even has five home runs. He’s not rated as a top prospect, but he rarely strikes out, is an above-average glove, and at 24, could force Kansas City’s hand.
Tigers: Joe Jimenez’s 13 strikeouts in six innings for Class AAA Toledo already has gotten him a couple of auditions in the Detroit bullpen. They haven’t gone well (12.46 ERA), but the easy way he hits 100 miles per hour on the radar gun will earn him plenty more chances and should eventually make him the closer.
White Sox: Lucas Giolito was the headliner in Chicago’s haul for Adam Eaton, but the 21-year-old righthander was off to a slow start (5.44 ERA) at Charlotte. Then the former first-rounder pitched a seven-inning no-hitter last week against Syracuse, reigniting the possibility that he will end the season on the South Side.
Baseball’s new StatCast system confirms what Twins fans already know: Miguel Sano hits the ball exceptionally hard. The leaders in average exit velocity (speed off the bat, in miles per hour) so far this season:
97.7: Miguel Sano, Twins
94.4: Aaron Judge, N.Y. Yankees (above)
94.1: Alex Avila, Detroit
94.1: Adam Lind, Washington
93.6: Khris Davis, Oakland
93.6: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit
The new measurements also confirm who the strongest sluggers are, and there are few surprises among them. The longest average home run distance this season (minimum 10 home runs, in feet):
420: Giancarlo Stanton, Miami
416: Marcell Ozuna, Miami
414: Bryce Harper, Washington
413: Nelson Cruz, Seattle
412: Miguel Sano, Twins
412: Salvador Perez, Kansas City
412: Mark Reynolds, Colorado
412: Mike Napoli, Texas