Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Position Analysis: Relief Pitcher

The Twins' bullpen is expected to once again be a strength this season, as several players return from last year's excellent group that posted a 3.24 ERA (third-best in the American League) return. Gone is J.C. Romero, who despite posting a solid 3.47 ERA in 2005, was extremely frustrating to watch due to his lack of control and his maddening tendency to let almost every inherited runner score. Also gone is Terry Mulholland, whose "rubber arm" was good for only an 18:17 strikeout-to-walk ratio last year. Four spots look to be locked down in the Twins bullpen, with the final two up for grabs between a number of candidates.

I'm not as optimistic as some in my outlook for the Twins 2006 bullpen. I think there are several reasons for concern. We'll likely be seeing an increased dependence on youth this season which can always spell trouble in the high-pressure situations of relief pitching.

First, the four returning players who, barring injury, are essentially assured spots in the Twins' bullpen entering the 2006 season:

Joe Nathan - The Closer
2005 stats: 70 IP, 7-4, 43 saves, 2.70 ERA, 94 K/22 BB, .97 WHIP


Since the former starter was acquired by the Twins in a 2003 trade with the Giants, Nathan has blossomed into one of the league's best closers. In each of his first two seasons with the Twins, Nathan has ranked third in the American League in saves, posted WHIPs under 1, and been an All-Star. I see no reason why he shouldn't repeat all these feats again in 2006.

Nathan had a bit of a roller-coaster season last year, posting 0.00 ERAs in April and August and a 0.79 in July but a 5.73 in May, a 6.30 in June, and a 5.59 in September. The final product was good -- a 2.70 on the season -- but you'd like to see a little more consistency. He struggled with his control at times last year which frequently got him into trouble. This year, I think he'll come out strong and have a very solid year. His fastball -- which normally takes a couple months to get up to top speed -- clocked at 96 MPH in the World Baseball Classic so he should be blowing by hitters right from the start. I predict 45 saves and a 1.90 ERA.

Juan Rincon - The Set-Up Man
2005 stats: 77 IP, 6-6, 2.46 ERA, 84 K/30 BB, 1.21 WHIP

Struggling with elbow issues, Rincon has yet to appear in a game this spring. I have a suspicion that he might open the season on the disabled list. This would be bad news for the Twins, who have relied heavily on Rincon's ability to dominate opposing batters and get close games into Nathan's hands. Steroid suspensions aside, Rincon was very solid last year, holding opposing hitters to a .224 batting average and allowing just 2 home runs in 77 innings. At age 27, he is still very much in his prime and capable of reproducing last year's numbers.

Hopefully Rincon can overcome his elbow issues because he is an absolutely crucial piece in this bullpen, especially with the departure of Romero.

Jesse Crain - The Middle Reliever
2005 stats: 79.2 IP, 12-5, 2.71 ERA, 25 K/29 BB, 1.13 WHIP

Crain is the member of this bullpen who I am perhaps most concerned about entering this year. Not because of any injury problems -- he is at full health as far as I know -- but rather because of a disturbing trend I have noticed with him. Fellow Twins blogger Aaron Gleeman wrote a post last year pointing out something that I too had noticed: Crain's strikeout rates have dropped off the charts since his arrival in the Major Leagues. Not just a little, but at an alarming rate. At every level of the minor leagues, Crain never posted a K/9 rate lower than 10 (except for 12 innings he threw at Quad City in 2002, in which he had 11 strikeouts -- an 8.25 K/9 rate). However, in his first stint in the Majors in 2004, Crain struck out just 14 batters in 27 innings. A little disconcerting, but possibly attributable to a small sample size. Last year was far more alarming. Crain struck out only 25 batters in almost 80 innings, a K/9 rate of just 2.82. He walked five more batters than he fanned.

Last year, his inability to make hitters miss didn't hurt him too much. He still had a good season, posting a solid 2.70 ERA and collecting more wins than any Twins starting pitcher other than Johan Santana. Still, if more of the balls that opposing batters put into play starting falling in for hits this season, it could spell trouble for Crain. He's still very young, but I will be concerned if he doesn't start collecting more strikeouts this year.

Matt Guerrier - The Long Reliever
2005 stats: 72.2 IP, 0-3, 3.39 ERA, 46 K/24 BB, 1.33 WHIP

Guerrier had a very nice season in 2005, performing well in the low-pressure role of long relief. Actually, he performed so well that I was mystified by the team's hesitation to give him a chance in more crucial situations. It seemed that Ron Gardenhire would be more apt to go to Mulholland when he needed a guy to come in and toss a couple innings in a relatively close game. Guerrier was very good after the All-Star break last year, posting a 2.97 ERA and holding opposing hitters to a .253 batting average.

I would like to see Guerrier play a larger role in the Twins' bullpen this year. I would also be comfortable having him start for a period of time if one of the team's starting pitchers were to get hurt. Just another reason why Kyle Lohse is expendable for the right offer.

And now, the fringe guys, who are battling for the final two spots in the Twins' bullpen:

Dennys Reyes
2005 stats (w/ Padres): 44.2 IP, 3-2, 5.15 ERA, 35 K/32 BB, 2.04 WHIP

Reyes, 28, is not a very good pitcher. He's posted ERAs below 4 twice in his career, and the last time was 1999. He will probably make the Twins as a left-handed specialist. In that role, he could be adequate. Over he past three years, he has held left-handed hitters to a .271/.336/.394 line -- not great, but decent. He also has much better control against lefties than righties. If Gardenhire starts using Reyes like he used Romero, having him pitch entire innings and facing right-handed hitters regularly, he will not have a good season. If he uses him specifically for the task of retiring tough southpaws late in games, he could be sufficient.

Darrell May
2005 stats (w/ Padres): 59.1 IP, 1-3, 5.61 ERA, 32 K/20 BB, 1.67 WHIP

I see little reason why May would make the Twins roster. He has had one decent season in his career -- which was almost assuredly a fluke -- and he has a 5.73 ERA this spring. He's been a starter for most of his career and has never been a remotely effective reliever. The Twins already have a good long relief man and they have several young guys who would almost certainly be more competent than May. His only redeeming quality is the fact that he is left-handed, but there are several lefties in the minor league system that would be preferrable, and at least have upside. May is 33 years old.

I will be baffled and frustrated if May makes the Twins' roster. Unfortunately, I could see it happening. Just seems like the kind of thing they would do...

Willie Eyre
2005 stats (w/ AAA Rochester): 82.2 IP, 10-3, 7 saves, 2.72 ERA, 74 K/28 BB, 1.29 WHIP

Eyre is a guy who I'm really hoping makes the Twins' roster. He pitched very well out of the Rochester bullpen last year, and he has allowed only 8 hits and 2 earned runs in 10.1 innings this spring. Eyre is pretty old for a prospect (he'll turn 28 in July) so there's really no sense in leaving him sitting in the minors anymore. Even if he struggles a little making the transition to the Majors, it's still difficult to imagine him being a worse option than May.

Dave Gassner
2005 stats (w/ AAA Rochester): 116.1 IP, 8-8, 4.95 ERA, 64 K/33 BB, 1.47 WHIP

Gassner, another lefty, probably doesn't have much of a Major League future. He had a solid year a Triple-A in 2004, going 16-8 with a 3.41 ERA, but last year his ERA ballooned near 5 and he was only .500. He was called up mid-way through the season and made two starts for the Twins, pitching pretty well in his debut but then getting pummeled in the second start. Gassner is a soft-tosser who doesn't really have a strong enough repertoire to get by against Major League hitters. I'd still rather see him in the 'pen than May though. Gassner has no chance of making the Opening Day roster because he recently discovered a bone spur in his elbow that will keep him out for at least a month.

Boof Bonser
2005 stats (w/ AAA Rochester): 160.1 IP, 11-9, 3.99 ERA, 168 K/57 BB, 1.31 WHIP

Some people consider Bonser to be a candidate for a starting spot with the Twins in the near future but I have trouble understanding why. He has never had a real good season in the minors beyond the Single-A level. Last year in Triple-A he was solid but not spectacular. He has allowed 8 runs on 15 hits in 8 innings this spring, which probably doesn't help his chances much.

There are a few other young guys, like Justin Jones, Errol Simonitsch, Glen Perkins, Matt Garza, Pat Neshek, and Jose Mijares, who have pitched well this spring but haven't seen action above the Double-A level and thus don't have much of a shot at winning a Major League spot to open the season. Keep those names on the radar though, as they could quickly rise through the ranks and find themselves in Twins uniforms very soon.

I think the competition for the final two spots in the bullpen is mostly between Reyes, May, and Eyre. I hope May is the odd man out. I think he will be.

Overall, the Twins bullpen can very strong this year, but there are some things to keep an eye on. Rincon needs to get healthy and stay healthy. Crain needs to either continue to have good luck on balls put into play or raise his strikeout rate. Reyes (or whoever the Twins use as their strikeout specialist) needs to be able to handle the division's big southpaw sluggers like Travis Hafner and Jim Thome. The Twins will need a young player or two to step up. If all those things can happen, I think the Twins will have one of the strongest bullpens in the American League. But those are big ifs.

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This concludes our position analysis series. Back to your regularly scheduled blogging tomorrow.