The Twins bullpen was screwed basically from the get-go in 2016. What was lined up to be a decent back-end trio of Glen Perkins, Kevin Jepsen and Trevor May wound up completely crumbling. Perkins shredded his shoulder and needed surgery, Jepsen completely fell apart and May had issues staying healthy all season.
That opened a spot for Brandon Kintzler, who filled in solidly as a groundball wizard, picking up 17 saves from mid-June on by boring 93 mph fastballs into the swings of hitters, as he induced a 61.9 percent groundball rate to help offseason just a so-so whiff rate (5.8 K/9). Basically, Kintzler did all that could be asked and then some from a guy who was had on a minor-league deal, including also not walking anyone as he still worked on a fairly thin margin late in games.
Kintzler is back in the fold for his final year of team control in 2017, but he wasn’t exactly invincible. He allowed opposing batters to hit .276/.308/.397, which is about as unsightly a line as one can put up as a groundballer who managed a solid ERA and fairly good peripheral statistics. The 32-year-old righty might start the season as the closer, but it’s fairly clear he’s not the best option, and could be better suited putting out fires earlier in the game, like inducing double plays in the sixth inning when a starter gets into hot water, and the like.
May doesn’t make a ton of sense because he battled a muscle imbalance issue which led to a stress fracture in his back. Based on doctoral advice and personal experience, May figures it works better for him physically and fiscally to work as a starter. He’ll move back to the bullpen if the team desires — and he’s spending the offseason doing yoga and pilates to ensure he can handle it — but ultimately, he wants another crack at the rotation. The insistence all offseason by the new brain trust is that he’ll be afforded that opportunity.
Another fairly good option at the end of games would be Ryan Pressly. The 28-year-old #Texas became a trusted part of Paul Molitor’s bullpen last season, as he threw pitches in innings seven or later in 68 of his 72 appearances. He found a new career-high in fastball velocity (95.1 mph average) and posted whiff rates in excess of 18 percent on his slider and curve. He still has a periodic issue with home runs and his WHIP (1.35) is a bit too high for comfort, but all the pieces are in place for Pressly to become a solid option in the back end of the bullpen.
But allow me to suggest a dark horse to pick up saves for the Twins this season: 26-year-old right-hander J.T. Chargois.
Chargois has been groomed for this role since the Twins took him 72nd overall (Round 2) in the 2012 draft. As a relief prospect — if there is such a thing — he’s made all of two starts since his freshman year at Rice — with both coming in that exact (2010) season. Our very own Kiley McDaniel (RIP) put an 80 OFP on Chargois’ fastball when he filed a report on him, and the offering does not disappoint. He averaged 96.2 mph on the pitch in his 2016 big league cup of coffee, with our PITCHf/x system tracking a max of 98.9.
Speaking of Chargois’ 2016 performance….yikes. The big league numbers — 4.70 ERA, 6.7 K/9, 4.7 BB/9 — aren’t great, are they? Let’s peek first at his Triple-A numbers. Chargois has always been one of those “man, if this guy could ever add command, he’d be sick” type of pitcher — especially after undergoing Tommy John surgery which cost him not only the 2013, but also the 2014 season.
That command found Chargois in the Triple-A Rochester bullpen this season, as the righty fanned 10.5 batters per nine and walked just 2.1 — well below his MiLB mark of 3.7 — as he carved up International League hitters while posting a 1.29 ERA and a WHIP of exactly 1.00. Chargois was summoned to the big leagues in mid-June, and was eased into a game where the Twins were getting blown out by the Boston Red Sox.
To say it didn’t go well would be an understatement, as the righty recorded just two outs as five runs crossed the plate (67.50 ERA). A return ticket to Triple-A awaited him after the game, and it’d be two more months — during which he posted a 1.59 ERA with a 21-4 K/BB ratio in 22.2 innings with the Red Wings — before he’d get another crack in the bigs.
Chargois’ first month back wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. He posted a 2.79 ERA in August, but it was with a 4-7 K/BB ratio and .904 OPS against in 9.2 innings. Swinging strikes were few and far between (7 percent), and just one of his 10 appearances came with a leverage index (via BRef) over 1.00. In other words, he wasn’t really good, and Molitor knew it.
September was a drastically different month for Chargois, and it’s one that should bring some excitement if it’s a sign of things to come. The righty made 14 appearances — which seems like a lot, but the team was trying to back off Pressly and Michael Tonkin, who were brutally overworked earlier in the season — and sliced his season ERA by more than two full runs. Of course, that’s not terribly impressive when that ERA is just south of 7.00 coming in.
The final damage for Chargois in September was a 2.84 ERA and 13-3 K/BB ratio in 12.2 innings. Opposing batters hit just .205/.255/.273 against Chargois, while his swinging strike rate jumped to a much more stomachable 12 percent. In fact, if we lop off Chargois’ brutal first outing of September, he closed the season by allowing one earned run over his final 11.1 innings (0.79 ERA) with a 10-2 K/BB ratio and a .421 OPS against. He told me in September that it basically boiled down to him getting his legs underneath him and finally feeling comfortable on the big-league mound.
Six of Chargois’ final 10 appearances carried leveraged indices of 1.0 or higher, with four of them over 1.5. In short, Molitor saw the improvement and started putting him in to put fires out. That bodes well for this season.
I still think the chances are that Kintzler opens the season as the closer, but I’m watching closely for the opportunity to have Chargois around because I think he’s the closer-in-waiting. If Kintzler could nab 17 saves from June 8 on, that’s a pace of 27 for the full season — on a team which lost more than 100 games! The Twins won’t be that bad this season — go check our standings projections, I’ll wait — and I think they could make the change fairly quickly. I’m not saying you need to take him early this spring in drafts — well, obviously — but I think this is a guy to keep an eye on who could be very, very helpful for you down the stretch.