Rarely have a first-place team’s weaknesses been so obvious and rarely has a fan base (rightfully) been so skeptical about those weaknesses being addressed in a meaningful, satisfying way, but the Twins accomplished precisely what they set out to do Tuesday before MLB’s trade deadline: add impact pitching.
In a series of three separate moves, they acquired All-Star closer Jorge López from the Orioles, front-line starter Tyler Mahle from the Reds and set-up man Michael Fulmer from the Tigers, sending out a grand total of eight prospects — including headliners Spencer Steer, Christian Encarnacion-Strand, Steven Hajjar and Cade Povich — on one of the busiest deadline days in team history.
This is uncharted territory, not only for the Derek Falvey-led front office that’s been in place since 2017 but for the Terry Ryan-led regime of the previous two decades as well. Falvey’s biggest prior trade deadline addition was Sergio Romo in 2019, and Ryan was never known for big deadline splashes. Twins fans have been conditioned to expect minor pickups or major sell-offs at midseason.
Things have changed. They were buyers, and not just to check the necessary boxes at minimal expense, but to add real, impact arms to both a rotation and bullpen that desperately needed them. And in doing so the Twins parted with substantial prospect capital, including four of their top-20 prospects from my midseason rankings. For once, they behaved as a contending team should.
Tyler Mahle, 3 Consecutive Ks. pic.twitter.com/z0KFJbK4Kl
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 13, 2022
Mahle, a 27-year-old right-hander with a mid-90s fastball, came at the biggest cost and carries the most upside as a playoff-caliber starter for this season and next. His surface-level numbers are plenty impressive on their own, including a 3.93 ERA and 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings since 2020, but his underlying metrics are even better and Mahle should benefit from a new home ballpark.
As a fly-ball pitcher, Mahle was particularly ill-suited for Cincinnati’s power-inflating ballpark, where he’s posted a 4.83 ERA since 2020 compared to a 2.93 ERA on the road. And though his 4.40 ERA overall this year isn’t pretty, Mahle’s secondary numbers continue to paint the picture of a front-line starter. In fact, his 3.60 FIP and 3.22 xERA are both better than they were in 2020 and 2021.
Last season, in posting a 3.75 ERA, he struck out 27 percent of batters faced and allowed a .704 OPS. This season, in posting a 4.40 ERA, he’s whiffed 26 percent of batters faced and allowed a .690 OPS. With a more forgiving home ballpark, it’s easy to envision Mahle emerging as one of baseball’s 25 or so best starters. Twins officials think he’s basically already there.
His mid-90s fastball is one of MLB’s best, missing bats and limiting on-contact damage. His splitter and slider are swing-and-miss weapons that enable Mahle to neutralize right-handed and left-handed batters. Carlos Correa summed up everything succinctly when asked about the Twins acquiring Mahle, saying: “I looked at his Baseball Savant page and saw a lot of red.”
In a best-of-three, opening-round playoff series, the Twins could start Mahle, Sonny Gray and Joe Ryan. Next year’s rotation could feature Mahle, Gray and Kenta Maeda, plus Ryan and some combination of Bailey Ober, Josh Winder, Chris Paddack and high-minors prospects Simeon Woods Richardson, Jordan Balazovic and Louie Varland, all of whom the Twins held on to at the deadline.
Falvey made it clear that the Twins targeted pitchers with team control beyond the next two months, viewing the longer-term value as essential when giving up top-20 prospects Steer, Encarnacion-Strand and Hajjar for Mahle, and Povich for López. Stretch-run rentals like Fulmer can make a huge impact, but Mahle and López can do that and be big factors in future seasons as well. That’s key.
Jorge López, 3Ks in the 9th. 😷 pic.twitter.com/u57WnlZHCr
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 18, 2022
López, a first-time All-Star at age 29, saved 19 games with a 1.68 ERA for the Orioles, and an interesting wrinkle is that two of his three outings all season in which he allowed multiple earned runs came against the Twins. Remove those games and he’d have a 0.99 ERA in 46 innings, with a .146 batting average and just one homer allowed. It’s hard to be more dominant than that.
López’s track record as a high-end reliever is limited to this year, but this is also his first year as a full-time reliever. While coming up through the Brewers’ farm system he was a consensus top-100 starter prospect, but López has an ugly 6.36 ERA in 58 career starts. The Orioles shifted López to the bullpen late last season and he showed enough promise that they committed to keeping him there.
As a starter, his velocity fluctuated, his control was shaky and he lacked the off-speed pitches to neutralize left-handed sluggers. Those are common problems for young starters, and it’s also common for those “failed” starters to thrive in the bullpen by dialing back their pitch mix and maxing out velocity without worrying about multiple trips through a lineup.
Many of MLB’s best relievers, and most of the best relievers in Twins history, were “failed” starters. Just like López. His mid-90s sinker as a starter is now a high-90s sinker as a reliever, inducing a grounder on 60 percent of balls in play. He’s all but abandoned four-seam fastballs in favor of more sinkers. And with more velocity and a better shape, his changeup and breaking balls are weapons.
López has been a great reliever for roughly 50 innings after being a bad starter for nearly 300 innings, so it’s natural to be somewhat skeptical about his ability to maintain this elite level of performance. However, starting and relieving are very different roles that amplify different strengths and weaknesses, and López is simply the latest in a decades-long line of bullpen conversion success stories.
This version of López bears little resemblance to the struggling starter, both in terms of raw stuff and results. Counting on him to maintain his current level of performance isn’t fair, because almost no one is this good, but a high-90s power sinker with multiple swing-and-miss off-speed pitches is a very straightforward recipe for relief dominance.
López is joining one of the few teams for whom he wouldn’t have far and away the most overpowering raw stuff on the pitching staff because that honor goes to Jhoan Duran and his majors-leading 100.6 mph average fastball. López can hit triple-digits with his sinker, which averages 97.8 mph, and each of his three off-speed pitches has held opponents to a sub-.200 batting average.
There are only nine MLB relievers with a strikeout rate above 25 percent and a ground-ball rate above 55 percent this season, and the Twins now have two of them in Duran and López. There aren’t many relievers who throw this hard, miss this many bats and induce this many grounders, possibly giving the Twins one of the league’s elite late-inning combos for the next 2 1/2 seasons.
Michael Fulmer, Nasty 91mph Slider. 😨 pic.twitter.com/bAKN2imkej
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 4, 2022
Fulmer, a 29-year-old impending free agent, also found success shifting to the bullpen last season after injuries derailed a once-promising starting career that included being named Rookie of the Year in 2016 and making the All-Star team in 2017. Fulmer has a 2.80 ERA and 105 strikeouts in 96 innings of relief, giving up just seven homers and a .238 batting average.
Fulmer’s approach is vastly different compared to his days as a starter when he pitched to contact and mostly relied on a mid-90s sinker to keep the ball on the ground. He’s lost some velocity, but Fulmer’s strikeout rate has jumped in relief because he’s become one of MLB’s most slider-heavy pitchers, leaning more on what is an elite breaking ball.
Early indications are that López will serve as the Twins’ primary closer, freeing up Duran for a high-leverage fireman role that will include some multi-inning outings. Fulmer and Griffin Jax can slot in as set-up men, pushing Emilio Pagán and Tyler Duffey into lower-leverage usage. Moving everyone down a rung or two on the bullpen ladder can solve a lot of problems and create more depth.
It’s remarkable that the Twins added three high-end arms, including a starter controlled through 2023 and a reliever controlled through 2024, while parting with just one top-10 prospect in Steer, but surrendering this much young talent certainly isn’t without risk. They pushed chips into the middle to increase their chances of a playoff run, or playoff runs. And that, after all, is the goal.
Farm systems aren’t just for providing the major-league team with young talent around which to build, although certainly that tends to be the focus. It can also be about using prospects as a means to acquire veteran big-league talent, much the same way NFL, NBA and NHL teams use draft picks. Draft picks can’t be traded in MLB (except for rare exceptions), so prospects take their place.
In the 13 months since last year’s draft, the Twins have traded four of their first five picks, dealing first-rounder Chase Petty for Gray this spring, using second-rounder Hajjar and fourth-rounder Encarnacion-Strand in the deal for Mahle and making third-rounder Povich part of the López package. They made good picks, used player development to increase their value and cashed them in.
They did the same with Steer, a 2019 third-round pick who once profiled as a singles-hitting utility infielder and is now a legit slugger thanks to mechanical tweaks and coaching. But with Jose Miranda atop the long-term depth chart at third base and Jorge Polanco at second base through 2025, the Twins felt safer trading Steer despite thinking he’ll be a quality regular, perhaps very soon.
Encarnacion-Strand has hit .320 with 29 homers in 109 minor-league games, including crushing Double-A pitching since a promotion last month, but he’s likely to wind up at first base, capping his value at the crowded bottom of the defensive spectrum. Hajjar and Povich profile as mid-rotation starters, which are valuable but far from irreplaceable. They’re also both in the low minors.
Yennier Canó has the makings of a quality reliever based on his raw stuff and minor-league success, but he’s 28 with spotty control and no go-to pitch versus lefties, failing to convince the Twins he’s capable of filling a high-leverage role. Sawyer Gipson-Long profiles as a back-of-the-rotation starter. Juan Nuñez and Juan Rojas are rookie-ball lottery tickets.
Collectively it’s a lot of young talent to trade away, in both quality and quantity, but that’s the price of doing business when targeting high-ending pitching with multiple seasons of team control instead of shopping in the discount bin again. Mahle, López and Fulmer are massive upgrades for this year. Mahle and López carry big future value, and for once, the Twins are actually going for it.
• Related reading: Twins trade for 3 pitchers in bold deadline moves that address biggest needs
(Photo of Jorge Lopez: Tommy Gilligan / USA Today)