I’m not much of a gambler, but I am familiar enough with the game of Craps to know that you keep rolling the dice until you get a seven. The odds of rolling a seven on one roll are not high (just one in six), but if you keep rolling the dice, eventually you will end up with a seven.
The Twins are pursuing a similar strategy with relievers. They have been stocking up on unpolished bullpen guys who throw hard but haven’t achieved success at the Major League level. Jim Hoey, Lester Oliveros, and Esmerling Vasquez all have some life on their fastballs, but all have control problems, too. Like the craps player rolling a seven, the odds are that if the Twins keep these guys around, at least one will develop into a solid relief pitcher.
Let’s not go into the way these players were acquired. It was a gamble to acquire each one of these pitchers (and many would say that the Hardy for Hoey trade was a “crapshoot” in the worst sense of the term). But in a very real sense, it does not matter for the future what the Twins already gave up. What matters is what they have on their roster right now.
Oliveros may be the most likely candidate for a breakout season. He’s the youngest of the trio at age 23, and he boasts a slider and a changeup in addition to his fastball. According to Fangraphs, that heater averaged 93.8 mph in 2011, while his slider clocked in at 84.6 and his change at 80.5. His minor league track record includes some impressive secondary numbers, most notably 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings. Last year, he spent 17 innings with the Tigers’ AA squad, and he struck out 28 and posted a miniscule 0.53 ERA. His time at AAA was more turbulent, and his big league stint was so-so, but we have at least a little hope that Oliveros can be dominant. Hopefully, that’s a glimpse of the future.
Hoey is the most familiar member of the trio to Twins fans. He had already been frustrating them for four months before Oliveros was acquired, with a 5.47 ERA and 1.91 WHIP at the Major League level. But even Hoey has some potential. He threw his fastball at a sizzling 95.3 mph in 2011, and added an offspeed pitch at 84 mph. The offspeed pitch seems to be the key, as Hoey will never be a useful big league pitcher if he does not develop it. But we should cut him a little slack; last year was the first year he used the offspeed pitch with any frequency, and it takes time to make something like that work. Hoey was actually a dominant reliever at the minor league level before he tore his labrum in 2008. That injury seems to have completely destroyed his ability to throw a slider – he threw that pitch 27% of the time in his brief 2007 MLB stint, but only 2.2% last year. Since the injury, Hoey has struggled with control problems. He is now 29 years old with just 59 big league innings under his belt, so he’ll have a lot to prove in 2012.
Vasquez was a surprise acquisition when the playoff-bound Diamondbacks released him just days before the end of the season. He’ll turn 28 this offseason, and he throws a 93.4 mph fastball and an 83.5 mph change. Unlike the others, he also uses a 75 mph curveball on occasion. Vasquez has the most Major League experience of the three pitchers. In 2010, he spent nearly the entire season with Arizona. He put up a 5.20 ERA, but struck out 55 in 53 innings. This year, his strikeout total dropped from 9.2/9 IP to 5.9/9IP, but his ERA also fell to 4.15. He has potential, as his mix of pitches could keep hitters guessing more than Hoey’s or Oliveros’s, but he needs to improve his control.
I am going to go out on a limb right now and predict that at least one of these pitchers will become a solid reliever for the Twins in 2012. None of them will be a closer, and I doubt any of them will be an 8th inning setup guy (at least not next year). That’s okay, though. If one of them became a solid option for the 7th inning, or a guy who could be counted on to get a strikeout with men on base, that would be a win.
All the Twins need is for one of these dice to land in their favor.