Saturday, March 19, 2005

Position Analysis: Relief Pitching

This year, the Twins may have the best bullpen in the AL. They have made some very smart moves by resigning the keys to last year's bullpen success, closer Joe Nathan and set-up man Juan Rincon. They have many young up-and-coming power arms available as well, so let's look at the likely make-up of the bullpen.

Closer: Joe Nathan, 2004 Stats: 1.62 ERA, 44 SVs, 89 K's, .187 BAA

Nathan relies mainly on his fastball, which he can get up to 98-99 MPH, to get hitters out in the 9th. Since his fastball is fairly straight, Nathan's other main weapon, his slider, becomes very important. That slider comes in around 88 MPH and gives Nathan a nasty combination. In addition, Nathan also throws a cutter and a change-up occasionally to keep hitters honest. He had great success last year and has shown himself completely capable of the closer's role. He enters this year as one of the best in the AL. If the Twins bullpen can consistantly get him the ball, he should have no problem closing out game after game for the Twins. I expect Nathan to have even more saves this year, if not a better year all-around. He's a very exciting, very proffesional, and very talented pitcher.

Set-up Men: Juan Rincon, 2004 Stats: 2.63 ERA, 11-6, 106 K's, .181 BAA

Overall, Rincon had a great year last year despite his playoff failures. He lead all AL relievers in wins with 11, had over 100 strikeouts, and continued to be reliable throughout the season for the Twins. Rincon's major downfall is his inability to always trust his cut fastball. Its not quite Rivera's, but who's is? If he uses it to his ability, he can dominate lefties and righties with no problem since most hitters can't catch up with his fastball anyways. He still tries to trick hitters with his slider, which is good, but should be used a lot less. Proof of this came in Game 4 of the playoffs when aging slugger Ruben Sierra creamed a Rincon slider for a home-run. Rincon should know not to use that pitch in intense situations and learn to rely on his cutter, which Sierra couldn't touch. If he does, there's no telling how successful he can be as Nathan's set-up man.

Jesse Crain, 2004 Stats: 2.00 ERA, 3-0, 14 K's, .179 BAA

Crain pitched for only the last two months of the season last year, so his stats don't show his potential. Crain has a fastball he can get up to 100 MPH, though it usually sits from 95-98. He mixes that fastball up with a big curve and a good slider. When he has his command, Crain can be unhittable with his mix of pitches. Expect Crain to move into a set-up role with Rincon and to have a successful year. Likely a sub-2.00 ERA, 80 K's can be expected with the kind of stuff Crain possesses.

Grant Balfour, 2004 Stats: 4.35 ERA, 4-1, 42 K's, .238 BAA

Balfour spent much of the 2004 season hurt, so he has yet to have a full season at the major league level. When he was around, he was as dominant as any Twins pitcher while showing his ability to be dominant with his 95-97 MPH fastball and slider. He stranded 23 of 30 inherited runners (76.7 percent), and first batters hit just .100 against him. Those are both great numbers that show his potential as a reliever or set-up man. Balfour, like Crain, is one of the Twin's many young power arms. And, like Crain, the ceiling for his talent goes pretty high. If he's healthy, expect a good year pitching in the 6th or 7th inning.

J.C. Romero, 2004 Stats: 3.51 ERA, 7-4, 69 K's, .224 BAA

Romero certainly had an up-and-down year in 2004. He was so bad early on that he was sent down to AAA in order to get himself together. When he returned, he went on an incredible strech of 36 2/3 scoreless innings, setting a Twins record. However, just as he did that, he began to break down in September, and he barely pitched against the Yankees. His inconsistancy has always been a problem and he has never been able to trust his stuff, which many say is the best on the staff. Romero has a 93-95 sinking fastball, a big breaking slider, and a change-up. When he locates his fastball and mixes his pitches up, he can be amazing, as he showed in 2002 with his 1.89 ERA. The hope is that Romero can put it together and been the dominant reliever he could be again, though he'll likely remain inconsistent this year. He's been unimpressive so far in Spring Training with a 9.00 ERA.

Other possibilites:

Ryan Rowland-Smith, 2004: In Seattle Organization

Smith is a Rule-5 draft pick from the Seattle Organization the Twins picked up over the winter. He's a Australian left-hander who has pitched fairly well this spring, with a 3.00 ERA. He's a possibility to be the bullpen's left-hander over 42-year old Terry Mulholland. It would likely be better to have a young pitcher then one twice as old in the bullpen when we really need it.

C.J. Nitkowski, 2004: 5.73 ERA, 2-1 with Yankees and Braves

Nitkowski hasn't had a great track record in his time in the Majors, as he is already 32 years old. However, he is making quite a bid this spring. So far, he hasn't allowed a run in nine innings while striking out three and walking two.
Once a four-pitch pitcher, Nitkowski decided to scrap his cut fastball and plans on sticking with three pitches: a fastball, curveball and changeup. Nitkowski's smart pitching could be a factor down the line, as his heavy reliance on locating his fastball is a neccessity J.C. Romero doesn't seem to catch. That's important, as the Twins will need a guy who can come in, pound the strike zone, and get outs. Plus, he's a lefty. With Mulholland and Balfour hurt, Nitkowski seems a likely candidate to start in the bullpen this year and he could be a surprise.

Scott Baker, 2004: In Double-A, Triple-A

Baker has been very impressive this spring, pitching eight scoreless innings so far. Baker has a good moving fastball in the 90's to go along with an impressive curve. Baker is a starter by trade, but his numbers certainly have earned him consideration in the bullpen, as Balfour will be injured at the beginning of the season.

Matt Guerrier, 2004: 5.68 ERA, 0-1. 19 K's,

Guerrier has been impressive so far this spring training, allowing only a run in eight innings so far. As with Baker, Balfour's injury opens up the possibility of Guerrier in the bullpen. Guerrier was not terribly successful in the majors last year as a starter, but he has plenty of potential. He is much more of the control-style of pitcher, throwing the four-pitch package of a fastball, slider, curve, and change. He may yet impress if he is given the chance again at the majors in 2005.

J.D. Durbin, 2004: In Triple-A

Durbin, or the "Real Deal," has not been impressive at all spring training games or his major league call-up last fall. Durbin's fastball reaches triple digits, but he has yet to find an impressive and consistent second pitch to make him a successful pitcher at the major league level. This is the only step he really needs to take before the Twins see him have the kind of success he should have with a fastball like that. Expect Durbin to start in Triple-A this year, but he should be in the majors by the end of the year.

Terry Mulholland, 2004 Stats: 5.18 ERA, 5-9, 60 K's, .327 BAA

Mulholland was resigned this year by the Twins after a so-so last year. Its only so-so because Mulholland is a veteran who can help this young pitching staff and because he managed to pitch a lot of the "bad" games as an inning-eater. Beyond that, Mulholland isnt too reliable. He has no dominant fastball and instead relies on "soft" stuff on the inside part of the plate. The Twins can't rely on that when they need to get all they can from their pitching this year and when their defense has been downgraded by offseason loses. Mulholland is good as a pitching coach, but beyond that, he has no place on a team headed for the playoffs.

In other Twins News:

- Joe Mays pitched five scoreless innings today against the Reds, continuing a great spring training in which he has given up a mere two runs in 14 innings pitched. If Mays continues down this path, this could be the best news the Twins get this spring, as Mays can make or break this year's starting rotation.

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