The Twins on Wednesday selected the contract of veteran catcher Sandy Leon — acquired in a minor league swap with Cleveland yesterday — and designated veteran right-handed reliever Joe Smith for assignment (Twitter link via Do-Hyoung Park of MLB.com). Minnesota also reinstated lefty Caleb Thielbar from the 15-day injured list and optioned catcher Caleb Hamilton to Triple-A St. Paul.
Smith, 38, signed a one-year, $2.5MM deal with the Twins late in the offseason. He’s currently sporting a lackluster 4.61 ERA through 27 1/3 frames, though that number is disproportionately skewed by a nightmarish appearance on July 17, when Smith took a six-run drubbing at the hands of the White Sox in an 11-0 blowout loss. Setting aside that one awful outing, he’s otherwise pitched to a 2.67 ERA.
The Twins, however, rarely gave Smith eighth-inning work and often relied on him in innings five through seven, often entrusting higher-leverage innings to Jhoan Duran, Griffin Jax, and (with far less success) Emilio Pagan and Tyler Duffey. Smith has been homer-prone this year even if one is willing to charitably overlook that White Sox implosion, and lefties have absolutely torched him, posting a .303/.410/.606 batting line in 39 plate appearances.
In the past, the sidearming Smith has excelled in terms of limiting hard contact. After a brief hiccup in that regard in 2020, he bounced back in 2021 — not to his prior peak, granted, but an 87.9 mph average exit velocity and 35.2% hard-hit rate were both solid enough marks. This season, Smith has yielded an average exit velocity of 89.2 mph, however, and a hefty 42.1% of batted balls against him have left the bat at 95 mph or greater.
Smith is still owed about $879K of this year’s $2.5MM salary, and any team that claims him will be responsible for the remainder of that sum. If he goes unclaimed on waivers, he can reject a minor league assignment in favor of free agency while still retaining the entirety of that remaining salary. A new team would only be responsible for the prorated portion of the league minimum upon signing Smith and adding him to the big league roster. The Twins, of course, can no longer trade Smith now that yesterday’s deadline has passed, so he’ll be on either outright waivers or release waivers within the next few days.
As for Leon, he’ll give the Twins a defensive-minded backup who’s long drawn praise for his receiving skills and defense — even as they’ve been coupled with anemic offense. At this juncture of his career, the 33-year-old switch-hitter is the consummate veteran backup. He went 2-for-15 with a pair of singles but six walks earlier this season with the Guardians and has a .226/.340/.333 slash in 100 Triple-A plate appearances between Cincinnati and Cleveland on the year. He’ll give the Twins a solid glove and veteran game-caller while they await the return of 25-year-old Ryan Jeffers, who’s out several more weeks with a broken thumb.
It’s possible that the Twins will continue to roster Leon even after Jeffers returns, as Leon would still be a better defensive backup behind the plate than Gary Sanchez, who could revert back to a primary designated hitter role. Beyond that, Major League teams will get a couple of extra roster spots in September, making it easier to roster both Leon and Sanchez. The Twins have regularly carried three catching options in previous seasons.