Minnesota Twins minor league awards week continues today by looking at the top relief pitchers in the system (be sure to look back at the Harmon Killebrew Award
winners and my choice for minor league starting pitcher
of the year). It’s an interesting category, especially for someone like me who typically will not rank relief pitchers as high as starters, but who fully understands the importance of a strong bullpen to a team.
A look at last year’s Top 6 minor league reliever shows how much of a mixed bag this can be. Number 6 was Anthony Slama. Number 5 was Luis Perdomo. Number 4 was Bruce Pugh. All three of them were released before the end of the 2013 season. Number 3 was Caleb Thielbar who pitched very well last year and came up to the Twins this year and pitched very well. Number 2 was Michael Tonkin who was remarkable the first 60% of the season, but he really struggled in Rochester after his first (of now three) promotions to the Twins. He certainly has the upside to be a long-time back of the bullpen arm. AJ Achter was my Choice for the award last year after he pitched well in Beloit and Ft. Myers. This year, he pitched well (though not top six) at both New Britain and Rochester and will be pitching in the Arizona Fall League.
Again, these awards are not a prospect list. It is about the numbers, regardless of age or level of competition.
Feel free to debate them, or ask any questions you may have.
Relief Pitcher of the Year
#6 – David Hurlbut
– Cedar Rapids Kernels / Ft. Myers Miracle (4-2, 6 saves, 2.82 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 70.1 IP, 65 H, 13 BB, 64 K)
Hurlbut was the Twins’ 16th
round pick in 2011 out of Cal State-Fullerton. He has pitched in several different roles in his three seasons in the organization. In fact, last year, he was one of the top five starting pitchers in the organization. He began 2013 back in the Midwest League, pitching out of the bullpen. Though he was fully capable and frequently worked two or three innings at a time (important with a six-man rotation). He also ended up being the team’s closer after Tyler Jones was promoted to Ft. Myers. Late in the season, Hurlbut was promoted to Ft. Myers where he made seven starts and was able to keep his ERA and base runners allowed down. The left-hander was able to strike out 8.2 per nine innings while walking just 1.7 per nine.
#5 – Cole Johnson
– Ft. Myers Miracle / New Britain Rock Cats (3-3, 5 saves, 3.10 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 61.0 IP, 48 H, 20 BB, 68 K)
Johnson is probably one of the least recognize Twins minor leaguers who was really good in 2013. The Notre Dame product, who was drafted in the 44th
round of the 2011 draft. In 2012, he started the season at extended spring training, and joined Beloit for the second half. He pitched well in relief and ended up starting for the Snappers in the playoffs. He started 2013 in Ft. Myers and was tremendous. He had some struggles in his adjustment to AA New Britain but quickly proved he had earned the spot. It’s strange to see his 10.0 K/9 rate. Frankly, he is basically performing at a similar level and is on a similar path as last year’s choice for minor league reliever of the year, AJ Achter, who was also drafted in a round that no longer exists.
#4 – Tim Atherton
– Cedar Rapids Kernels (8-5, 1 save, 2.54 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 95.2 IP, 76 H, 33 BB, 102 K)
Atherton spent two-thirds of the Kernels in the Kernels bullpen before ending the season by making 11 starts for the team. He also was going to be the Game 3 starter for them in the playoffs. Atherton has a herky-jerky delivery that can be quite deceptive. That helped him to 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings over 95+ innings. The right-handed Australian originally signed with the Twins as an infielder in 2008, but he was let go for disciplinary reasons. He came back to the organization as a pitcher in 2011, so he’s still developing his pitches.
#3 – Zach Jones
– Ft. Myers Miracle (4-3, 14 saves, 1.85 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 48.2 IP, 28 H, 28 BB, 70 K)
Jones was the Twins 4th
round pick in 2012 out of San Jose State. He hit and pitched in college, but an upper-90s fastball pushed him to the mound as a pro. After signing, he pitched in Elizabethton and Beloit. He spent the entire 2013 season in Ft. Myers. Just look at those strikeouts: that equates to 12.9 strikeouts per nine innings. Also notice that he gave up just 5.2 hits per nine innings. The reason he stayed in Ft. Myers all season is because he also walked 5.2 per nine innings. Jones often hit 100 mph during the season’s first half. In the second half, he generally sat between 94 and 96 mph. He will gain some more experience by pitching for the Twins in the Arizona Fall League next month.
#2 – Edgar Ibarra
– New Britain Rock Cats / Rochester Red Wings (3-2, 2 saves, 1.93 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 60.2 IP, 41 H, 29 BB, 54 K)
Ibarra signed with the Twins in 2006. Last offseason, he had the opportunity to become a six-year minor league free agent. However, he (and Josmil Pinto and Deibinson Romero) signed back with the Twins on the first day of free agency. It was good for the Twins and for Ibarra. He started the season with the New Britain Rock Cats and finished the season with the Rochester Red Wings. The left-hander had a run of 32 consecutive scoreless innings. His only flaw is an excessive number of walks. He posted a 1.91 ERA in AA and a 1.96 ERA in AAA. In general, he was terrific all year. Again, he can become a minor league free agent following this season. I can’t help but wonder if the Twins will add the 24 year old to the 40 man roster. If not, will he be willing to stay in the organization for another year?
Relief Pitcher of the Year – Tyler Jones
– Cedar Rapids Kernels / Ft. Myers Miracle (5-6, 13 saves, 2.58 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 52.1 IP, 37 H, 20 BB, 66 K)
Tyler Jones was the Twins 11th
round pick in 2011 out of LSU. He was a successful high school athlete in Milwaukee and helped win a national title at Madison Junior College before heading south for a year with LSU. He began the 2012 season in extended spring training before moving up to the Beloit starting rotation in May. He was fairly mediocre as a starter. Earlier this spring, he acknowledged to me that he had not put in the work the previous offseason. Last offseason, he put in the work and lost over 30 pounds. He was moved to the bullpen and he dominated. His 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings were second only to Zach Jones. He also slightly improved his walk rate. Compared to others on this list, he allowed the fewest base runners per inning. He did miss three weeks in May with a sore elbow, but he came back strong. He was promoted to Ft. Myers where he took over primary closer duties and with the exception of one game in which he gave up four runs, he pitched very well all season. Having seen him finish off games with his 96 mph fastball was quite impressive, and seeing his much-improved slider gives me hope that he might surface in a Twins uniform within the next couple of years.
This was a tough list to rank, and there was no clear-cut winner in this group. There were a lot of very solid relief pitching performances throughout the organization. So, what do you think? Would you go with Tyler Jones, who struck out a bunch without walking an excessive number and allowed the fewest base runners? Would you pick Edgar Ibarra who had that tremendous streak and was very good all season, but he didn’t strike out as many and walked more (too many?)? Would you consider Zach Jones who tied with Michael Tonkin for most saves in the organization this year and led the organization with 12.9 strikeouts per nine innings? Or, would you go with a guy like Atherton who made 11 starts and was still able to strikeout more than a batter per inning? The choice is up to you. I went with Tyler Jones. Post your thoughts and your rankings below.
We’ll be back tomorrow with the Twins Daily Minor League Hitter of the Year.