Twins’ deep bullpen mix again features a healthy, hard-throwing Jorge Alcala



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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Two springs ago, Jorge Alcala was primed for a setup role in the Minnesota Twins’ bullpen, but back-to-back injury-wrecked seasons ruined that plan. He pitched just twice in 2022 before being shut down with an elbow injury that led to season-ending surgery, and made only one appearance for the Twins over the final four months of last season because of a forearm strain.

Given how long it’s been since the Twins could count on the 28-year-old right-hander to stay healthy, and how many quality veteran relievers they added this offseason, it would be understandable if Alcala got somewhat lost in a crowded bullpen picture. But then he took the mound Wednesday for live batting practice, and reminded everyone why his upside is undeniable.

Alcala’s fastball sat consistently at 96 to 97 mph, topping out at 98 mph, and his low-90s slider showed plenty of bite. It was just a handful of matchups against teammates in front of a few dozen onlookers before spring training games get underway, but it was enough to make an impression on manager Rocco Baldelli and others who remember how promising Alcala looked in 2020 and 2021.

Health in pitching is always a big part of the discussion,” Baldelli said. “We’ve seen a lot of guys come back from a lot of different things to perform out there on the mound and succeed. He’s fully capable of that. I see nothing standing in his way at this point. He just has to get back out there and get back into good, midseason, productive form. When he does, he’ll help our major-league team.”

Alcala was a Double-A starter prospect when the Twins acquired him, along with since-dropped outfielder Gilberto Celestino, from the Houston Astros in July 2018 as part of the Ryan Pressly trade. Alcala shifted to the bullpen in the second half of 2019 and made his big-league debut as a reliever that September, but he was far from a finished product even before the injuries.

The right-hander struggled at times to command his electric raw stuff, and his changeup, thrown primarily in an attempt to neutralize left-handed hitters, was very much a work in progress. He was mostly used in low- or medium-leverage situations, with some notable blowups in the rare high-leverage opportunities, in large part because he lacked a reliable weapon against left-handed sluggers.

But the overall results were good, including a 3.48 ERA and 89 strikeouts in 85 1/3 innings across his first 77 appearances for the Twins. Alcala was tough on righties, using his overpowering fastball/slider combo to hold them to a .194 batting average and .524 OPS. And he started to show tangible progress versus lefties in 2021, striking out 16 of the 39 he faced in the second half.

“It always comes back to his strike-throwing and consistency with his pitches,” Baldelli said. “When he’s in the zone, he’s found his release point and is not afraid to throw any of his pitches in any count. When he can do that successfully, he’s good. I say that for him more than other guys, even though every pitcher has to throw strikes, every pitcher has to use his off-speed pitches. For him, it’s vital.”

Pairing an upper-90s fastball with an excellent slider and a decent changeup is a straightforward recipe for relief success and, if healthy, Alcala will almost surely get another chance to carve out a role in the Twins’ bullpen. However, he would likely need a standout camp to secure an Opening Day job considering the Twins’ relief depth, and even then some Triple-A time might be coming.

Barring injuries, at least five of the eight bullpen spots are seemingly locked in, with late-inning holdovers Jhoan Duran, Brock Stewart, Griffin Jax and Caleb Thielbar joined by right-hander Justin Topa, who came over from the Seattle Mariners as part of the Jorge Polanco trade. Two other late-offseason pickups, right-hander Jay Jackson and left-hander Steven Okert, might also be locks.

That leaves a maximum of three vacancies if Jackson and Okert are part of the competition, and perhaps only one spot truly up for grabs. Qualified candidates include righties Josh Staumont and Zack Weiss, and lefty Kody Funderburk, as well as long-relief options Cole Sands, Josh Winder and Brent Headrick. And maybe Louie Varland, too. It’s the Twins’ deepest relief group in a long time.

Based on his pre-injury track record, still-impressive post-surgery raw stuff and obvious upside, Alcala is capable of emerging from that roster battle with an Opening Day job. But because he has minor-league options remaining and can be stashed in St. Paul without being exposed to waivers, the Twins may take that route to give Alcala more time to shake off any rust and build back up.

“He’s got good stuff,” Baldelli said. “His spring is going to revolve around that type of consistency. It always does. You can really see when he’s locked in and throwing the ball the way he needs to. I’ve said that before about Alcala. I don’t think much has changed. Yes, he has to be healthy. I think he’s healthy. I think we’re past a lot of the health questions and we can just focus on performance.”

After two injury-filled years, that’s all the Twins could ask for with Alcala. And he shouldn’t be overlooked as part of their bullpen plans for 2024 and beyond.

(Photo of Jorge Alcala: Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)





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