It was a minor transaction that probably went unnoticed by all but the most hyper-aware Twins fans. Less than three weeks after trading a teenage pitcher for little-known righthander A.J. Alexy, the Twins on Monday lost him to the White Sox on waivers.
But reframe that easily overlooked move this way, and it's far more revealing: Chicago's waiver claim stripped the Twins of their most notable bullpen addition of the offseason.
No, Alexy wasn't projected to have a meaningful role within Minnesota's relief corps; he's just a rookie with 30 career innings in the major leagues, a 6.30 ERA and more walks than strikeouts. But the fact that such a cross-your-fingers lottery ticket rated as perhaps their most newsworthy bullpen acquisition illustrates how content and confident the Twins are to enter 2023 with largely the same set of relievers who finished 2022.
"I really do feel good about our bullpen," Derek Falvey, the Twins' president of baseball operations, said last weekend. "I feel like we saw a lot of progress as last season went on, and within a group that still can make even more progress as they gain experience."
By some measures, Falvey's faith is understandable. Last year's relievers, called upon to throw a franchise-record 654 1/3 innings, finished with a 3.84 ERA as a group, their lowest since the veteran-dominated staff of 2014 posted a 3.73 mark.
They struck out 675 hitters, more than any bullpen in the majors except the Cubs', and their 1.281 per-inning rate of walks and hits allowed (WHIP) was in the top 25% in Twins' history. Hitters batted .240 against them as a group, third-lowest by a Twins bullpen in this century.
“If we were to do anything at this point, it would likely be to add depth in the middle [innings]. We'll keep an open mind, but [relief pitching is] not a priority.”
Yet while cutting more than half a run off their 2021 bullpen ERA of 4.39, the Twins still ranked only 10th in the American League, and they allowed more home runs than all but the Rays, Angels and Blue Jays. Their Win Probability Added, a statistic that measures how much players contribute to actual victories, also ranked 10th in the AL, despite the presence of Jhoan Duran, the runaway league leader in WPA.
"We realize that we'll need more consistent contributions from that group," Falvey said. "But we believe we have options in place, some really good young pitchers, who can do that. Not just Duran — at the end of last year, we saw some kids step up into bigger roles. We watched Griffin Jax develop into someone we can rely on. What Jovani Moran did the last month of the season [a 34.8% strikeout rate and a .194 opponent average after his Aug. 29 call-up], it's something he can really build upon."
Even Emilio Pagan, who pitched his way out of the closer role by blowing six leads in the season's first four months, will be back with a second chance to fulfill the promise the Twins say they still see in his raw mechanics. "We saw the ability to get swings-and-misses, to go two innings at a time," Falvey said earlier this winter. "I recognize some of the batted-ball outcomes and home runs and big moments were challenging. We're to the drawing board on that."
It's less of an issue with the sensational emergence of Duran. The rookie broke all Twins velocity records with a fastball that regularly topped 102 mph, and with 89 strikeouts, tied Doug Corbett's 1980 team record for whiffs by a rookie reliever, albeit in fewer than half as many innings.
Duran appears headed to potential stardom as the Twins' primary rally-stopper. A converted reliever, "he adapted to a new role, at the highest level, faster than we could have hoped," Falvey said. With him, Moran, Jax, and veterans Caleb Thielbar and Jorge Lopez, "We feel like we have the eighth and ninth innings covered."
That still leaves plenty of work available, though; Twins relievers threw another 371 innings besides the eighth and ninth last year. That's why Falvey shopped around for relief pitching in the free-agent and trade markets, without finding a deal he liked. The Twins picked up righthander Oliver Ortega from the Angels off waivers, traded with the Nationals for Alexy and invited Dereck Rodriguez, a former Giant (and briefly last summer, a Twin) who they originally drafted as an outfielder in 2011, to training camp on a minor-league contract.
But now, though he can't rule out another opportunity presenting itself, Falvey said he's satisfied with the group of relievers who will come to camp next month.
"We did our bullpen shopping at the [trade] deadline last year by adding some depth, adding Jorge [Lopez]" and veteran Michael Fulmer, Falvey said.
Jorge Alcala, a promising reliever who threw only two innings last season before an elbow injury ended his season, is likely returning. Fulmer departed as a free agent at the end of the season. The Twins have discussed a return to Minnesota with his agent, but Falvey didn't sound particularly optimistic about the possibility.
"If we were to do anything at this point, it would likely be to add depth in the middle [innings]. We'll keep an open mind, but [relief pitching is] not a priority," he said. "This group is young and talented, and we're excited to see what they can do."