The lead is shrinking, and the bullpen turnover is expanding.
The Minnesota Twins, who once led the division by 11.5 games, entered Sunday with a one-game lead over Cleveland in the American League Central.
This worm, I am confident, will soon turn. Cleveland has taken full advantage of a remarkably soft July schedule. August figures to be more of a gauntlet for the Tribe, while the Twins have zero games remaining against New York, Houston, Boston and Oakland.
It isn’t always how you’re playing, but who you’re playing.
As the divisional lead has dwindled this month, so have the familiar faces in the Twins bullpen. The Twins have lopped four veteran bullpenners from the roster since the All-Star break, replacing them with fresh faces from the farm system.
The most notable subtraction was the most recent: Blake Parker, who opened the season as Rocco Baldelli’s preferred ninth-inning arm, was not only designated for assignment last week but, unlike Adalberto Mejia, Mike Morin and Matt Magill, didn’t land on another major league team. As of Saturday Parker had not decided whether to report to Triple-A Rochester or take free agency.
On Saturday the Twins finally added a veteran: Sergio Romo. The 36-year-old righty is probably a bit less effective these days than when he was a key bullpen piece for the Giants in their three World Series titles earlier in the decade, but he still has a killer slider and isn’t going to be scared of any situation.
Romo is going to help. But he doesn’t really check my key boxes for the Twins bullpen. Ideally by the close of the trading period Tuesday they will add a reliable second left-hander and a right-handed power arm for the late innings; both would reduce the stress on Taylor Rogers.
The Twins bullpen plan for 2019 has largely collapsed. They came into camp in February figuring that free-agent signee Parker would combine with 2018 holdovers Rogers, Trevor May and Trevor Hildenberger to hold down the late innings and with expectations that converted starting prospects Mejia and Fernando Romero would develop into useful pieces.
Rogers has shined. May has struggled with his command. None of the other five are on the Twins active roster.
Modern bullpens are always works in progress. Reconstructing a relief corps in midseason is common, and the best organizations meet that challenge effectively. Adding to the challenge for the Twins front office: virtually every contender feels the need to add relief help.
One of the fresh faces in the bullpen right now is Lewis Thorpe, a 23-year-old Australian left-hander who has been primarily a starting pitcher.
The Twins could do worse than commit to him in the bullpen the rest of the way.
Thorpe missed two full seasons to surgery and illness (2015-16). He pitched 83 innings in 2017, just under 130 last year, and has 108 so far this season.
A bullpen role for the rest of the season (and one hopes the postseason) might serve to limit his innings this year while breaking him into the majors.
Long relief was once the preferred apprenticeship for starting pitchers. Thorpe figures to be a candidate for the Twins rotation next year — remember, three of the five rotation members are free agents after this season.