It was over two years ago—although it may seem like decades or ages ago—when the Minnesota Twins were last in the playoffs and were in the process of being swept by the New York Yankees. The Twins pitching staff—mainly the bullpen—was having trouble getting the Yankee hitters out and as a result, the Twins ended up being eliminated from the playoffs. Now to put all of the blame for the Twins’ struggles that year in the postseason solely on the pitching staff would be unfair because it was a collective effort that resulted in their demise; however, following that series sweep, a paradigm shift began to take over the Twins and their philosophy for building a pitching staff. No longer would the Twins seek out “pitch-to-contact, command” type pitchers and instead they would begin to assemble a staff and bullpen built with “power arms.”
This past offseason has continued to demonstrate the Twins’ desire to acquire such power arms as they traded for Alex Meyer who possesses a mid-90s mph fastball and sinker and is known for his ability to strike hitters out and overpower them. If you look back even to two seasons ago when the Twins traded J.J. Hardy to the Baltimore Orioles for a “power-arm” in the bullpen by the name of Jim Hoey, you can see the Twins were beginning to seek out pitchers to fit their new scheme. Hoey didn’t work out for the Twins, but the team has stuck with the plan and is dedicated to seeing it through.
Even last year’s amateur draft saw the team draft more young “power-arms” with high potential. Yet with all of this hype centering around the newly acquired and drafted “power-arms” that the Twins have put together, one pitcher—who has been in the organization all along—has slid under the radar and possesses the “power-arm” mold that the Twins have been seeking. That pitcher is Michael Tonkin.
Tonkin was signed in 2008 out of high school by the Twins for a bargain of $230,000. At the time, Tonkin—who is the brother-in-law of former Twins’ outfielder Jason Kubel—was pondering going to college at Southern California, but opted to enter the Twins’ minor league system. At age 23, Tonkin is beginning to show why the Twins were so high on him and why he could be in line for a promotion to the big leagues later this season.
In 44 games between low and high Single-A last year, Tonkin went 4-1 with a 2.08 ERA and 12 saves while averaging 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings. Last season was also the first that Tonkin was used exclusively out of the bullpen, as he had previously been used as a starter. His fastball reaches about 95 mph, but it’s his devastating slider that has caught the eye of executives in the Twins’ organization. The development of his slider—to complement his fastball—has given Tonkin the necessary tools to be an overpowering reliever at the majors.
Tonkin is likely to start the season at Double-A for the Twins, but his impressive spring training so far may bring him back to the majors sooner than later if he doesn’t head north with the big club later this month. So far this spring training, Tonkin has pitched in four games, surrendered one hit, walked two batters and struck out two in four innings of work. The numbers may not jump out at you, but his performance during those appearances sure have passed the eye test of those in the Twins’ organization and coaching staff.
It would be nice to see Tonkin make it to the big leagues this season and see how he stacks up against big league hitters. The Twins hope to have a bullpen filled with power arms and anchored by closer Glen Perkins when they return to contention in the next few seasons, and pitchers like Tonkin are the key to making that hope a reality. Tonkin may not be the name garnering all of the attention of current Twins’ prospects, but he may be the one they’ll be talking most about come September.