During the Twins' two losses in Seattle earlier this week, we were reminded of the issues that can be presented by a thin and overworked bullpen. Pat Neshek's season-ending injury, combined with a need to limit Jesse Crain's workload in the wake of shoulder surgery along with a lack of other compelling options, have led Ron Gardenhire to use Matt Guerrier 55 times already this season. Recently the problem has been especially prevalent, with Guerrier appearing in eight of the team's past 11 games. He clearly appears to be worn down, as he's posted an 11.37 ERA while allowing 11 hits over 6 1/3 innings during that span. All these problems have forced Gardenhire to use Brian Bass in high-leverage situations on multiple occasions, and even to relent that he's finally ready to budge on his stringent use of Joe Nathan in save situations (which is a good thing, but alas).
The Twins rank 10th among 14 AL teams in bullpen ERA, with a 3.95 mark that puts them above the league average of 3.86. It's been a long time since the Twins have had a below-average bullpen, and the effects of this have been painfully evident with the number of winnable games that have slipped away, especially on the road. Looking ahead, the Twins will have to hope that Neshek can return effectively next season, but that is far from a given at this point. This bullpen is going to need all the help it can get, which makes the team's handling of its relief prospects all the more mystifying.
There are several intriguing relievers in the Twins' system. Most of them hold one commonality -- they are all relatively old and none of them are being moved through the system very aggressively despite getting very good results.
One example is Rob Delaney. After posting a 1.42 ERA and 30-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding opposing hitters to a .207 batting average over 31 2/3 innings in Ft. Myers to open the season, Delaney was promoted to New Britain in June, where he has posted nearly identical numbers over 24 innings of work. He isn't a horribly frustrating example, since he has already been moved up one level this season, but Delaney turns 24 in a month and appears to have quickly mastered the Double-A level. With a dearth of quality relief prospects in the high levels of the minors, it would make sense to bump Delaney up to Triple-A for the remainder of the season to get a handle on where he stands and whether he can be an option for the Twins out of spring training in 2009 or even in September of this year.
A pair of teammates in the Ft. Myers Miracle bullpen provide a more upsetting example of inexplicably stalled prospects. Blair Erickson has posted a 1.39 ERA and 39-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio while allowing just 12 hits in 32 1/3 innings out of the Miracle 'pen after an early-season promotion from Low-A Beloit. More unsettling is the case of Anthony Slama, who has posted video-game numbers (60 IP, 0.90 ERA, 92/21 K/BB, .172 BAA) but has spent the entire season in Ft. Myers. Back in July after Delaney and others had been promoted from Ft. Myers to New Britain, I lamented that the dominating Slama was not part of that group, remarking that the right-hander was "stagnating at the Single-A level." Two months later, Slama continues to dominate and continues to stagnate at a level that is clearly below him. Erickson is 23, Slama 24; these players have no business playing in Single-A, and their numbers provide clear evidence of this.
Delaney, Erickson and Slama were all drafted out of college, and it is considered common practice to promote college-trained players more quickly since they enter pro baseball already having gained experience against relatively high-level competition. Yet, the Twins continue to move these three somewhat slowly in spite of their success, which wouldn't be quite so irksome if it weren't for the glaring needs developing in the Twins' bullpen.
It's worth noting that all three of these relief prospects are dominating levels that they are clearly too advanced for, and none are sure bets to develop into useful major-league relievers. Furthermore, moving prospects up through the system can be tricky business because it involves a ripple effect with players being displaced at other levels. But at this point, it makes every bit of sense to place these young men in a more appropriate competitive environment so that the organization can evaluate whether they may provide answers for a question-filled big-league bullpen in the near future.