The Twins have designated right-handed reliever Tyler Duffey for assignment, as first reported by Patrick Reusse of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (Twitter link). Right-hander Cole Sands is being recalled from Triple-A St. Paul to take Duffey’s spot on the roster (and, seemingly, in the bullpen for now). Minnesota has yet to formally announce the move.
Duffey, a fifth-round pick by the Twins back in 2012, has had an up-and-down career in Minnesota. Debuting as a starter back in 2015, he quickly looked as though he could hold that role down for the foreseeable future, pitching to a 3.10 ERA with solid strikeout and walk rates as a rookie that year. However, Duffey was clobbered for a ghastly 6.33 ERA in 133 innings the following year and moved to the bullpen in 2017.
It took some time, but by the 2019 season, Duffey had become an indispensable member of the Twins’ bullpen. He logged 57 2/3 innings of 2.50 ERA ball and punched out a whopping 34.5% of his opponents against a 5.9% walk rate that season. From July 28 through Sept. 25 in 2019, Duffey went 26 straight appearances without allowing a run — a total of 23 2/3 innings during which he posted a scintillating 40-to-5 K/BB ratio. He followed that year with an even better showing in the shortened 2020 season (1.88 ERA in 24 innings), and while his numbers took a step back in 2021 they were still quite solid (3.18 ERA, 3.49 FIP in 62 1/3 innings).
All in all, from 2019-21, Duffey logged 144 innings with a 2.69 ERA (3.16 FIP), a 29.8% strikeout rate, an 8.2% walk rate and a 44.4% ground-ball rate. By and large, he was an effective late-inning reliever on whom the Twins relied with regularity.
This season, however, has been another story entirely. Duffey owns a 4.91 ERA and has already yielded eight home runs in just 44 innings of work (1.64 HR/9). The fastball that averaged 94 mph in 2019 is now averaging 92.3 mph, and he’s seen his strikeout rate plummet to 21.1% while his 8.1% walk rate is more than two percentage points higher than it was during that 2019 peak.
Much as he did in 2019, Duffey had an impressive run this summer when he rattled off 15 2/3 shutout innings with a 12-to-3 K/BB ratio from June 17 through July 23, but that hot streak has been bookended by nightmarish bouts of home runs yielded in leverage spots. Duffey has yielded multiple runs in 20% of his appearances this season (eight of 40), including five different outings where he’s been tagged for three runs. Since that promising run from mid-June through late July, Duffey has yielded seven runs on six hits (two homers) and four walks with three strikeouts in a total of 4 1/3 innings.
Minnesota’s bullpen has been the team’s greatest flaw this season, and Duffey’s wild inconsistency has played a significant part in that Achilles heel. He’s earning $3.8MM in his final season of club control before free agency, meaning any club who claimed him — he can’t be traded now that the deadline has passed — would be on the hook for the remaining $1.28MM on this year’s salary. Because of that, he’ll likely go unclaimed, and even if the Twins attempt to outright him to Triple-A St. Paul, he can reject the assignment and retain the rights to that salary, as is his right as a player with five-plus years of MLB service time.
As for the 25-year-old Sands, he’s been rocked for 16 runs in 16 1/3 Major League innings during this season’s debut, but he has a better minor league track record. Like Duffey, he’s a former fifth-round pick (Florida State University, 2018) with a history of solid minor league performances. While it’s true that Sands has been hit hard in St. Paul this season (5.59 ERA in 48 1/3 frames), he posted a brilliant 2.46 ERA through 80 1/3 Double-A frames last year and also notched a sub-3.00 ERA in his first full pro season with the Twins back in 2019.
Sands has worked primarily as a starter in his career, so it’ll be intriguing to see if, similar to Duffey earlier in his career, Sands’ stuff will play up in the ’pen and allow him to seize a role there moving forward. Alternatively, he could simply operate in a long relief role until lefty Jovani Moran returns from the injured list and then head back to St. Paul where he’d continue working as a starter and serve as rotation depth both this year and next.