In assigning blame for the Twins' failure to make the playoffs this past season, there is no easier culprit to point a finger at than an overworked and ineffective bullpen. After all, had Twins' reliever corps managed to protect just one more of those many late leads that slipped away over the course of the season, the team would have found itself facing the Rays in the ALDS, and probably putting up a better fight than the White Sox did.
As such, repairing the broken bullpen will be the top priority in the eyes of many fans for this winter. I have my own proposal for what Bill Smith can do to address this issue during the offseason: nothing.
Relief pitchers are generally overvalued, both in free agency and in trades. This was illustrated, for instance, in a 2006 trade in which the Reds surrendered two starting position players (Felipe Lopez and Austin Kearns) in return for a package highlighted by a pair of middle relievers. It is also illustrated in the contract of a guy like, say, Kyle Farnsworth, who tabbed a three-year deal worth $17 million prior to the 2006 season. Considering their low workload, their year-to-year inconsistency and their replaceability, giving up quality players in trade for or handing a multi-year contract to a relief pitcher is usually a bad idea, unless the reliever is of the elite variety (like Joe Nathan).
Furthermore, I'm hardly convinced that the Twins need any outside help to begin with. Even accounting for the likely departures of Dennys Reyes and Eddie Guardado, this team will enter the 2009 season with a rather crowded bullpen picture that includes Nathan, Pat Neshek, Craig Breslow, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Boof Bonser and Philip Humber. While many of these players are shrouded in more question marks than the Riddler, they all have the stuff to be successful major-league relievers, and I'm not particularly anxious to see the Twins give up on any of them. There are eight names in that group, so the Twins are already going to have to make some tough decisions to slim down the crowd as it is, and adding more players only creates more tough decisions. One might not view getting rid of members of this group as "tough decisions" given how poorly the majority of them pitched in 2008, but in my mind that's a rather short-sighted viewpoint.
While a lot of things went right for the Twins this year, very few of those things were in the bullpen. The shut-down setup man Neshek was lost for most of the year. Juan Rincon was horrendous and had to be jettisoned. Crain's overall results were alright for a guy in his first year back from shoulder surgery, but he was hardly someone who could be relied on in tight situations. Guerrier, of course, couldn't get anyone out over the last few months of the season. It's awfully difficult to imagine so many things going wrong next year. Many members of this bullpen have had success in the past and seem like good candidates to rebound, especially considering that Neshek will have had nearly a full year to rehab his elbow, Crain will be almost two years removed from surgery and Bonser has had some time to adjust to the relief role.
Beyond the arms that the Twins already boast at the big-league level, there are several more relievers in the minors who could help next year. While Triple-A farmhands like Bobby Korecky, Tim Lahey, Mariano Gomez and Ricky Barrett lack big upside, they all possess the ability to be useful pieces of a major-league bullpen at some point. And while further away, guys like Rob Delaney, Anthony Slama and Blair Erickson have all demonstrated the ability to dominate in the low minors and could be on the fast track.
The Twins have a glut of capable arms in their major-league bullpen, with plenty of reinforcements available both in the short-term and long-term. To me, using the team's limited resources to bring in further help on this front would be a wasteful mistake. No doubt that the Twins' general fanbase would be rather disappointed if Spring Training 2009 rolls around without any type of move to acquire help for what was a frustratingly inept aspect of the team this past season, but -- as the Guardado trade illustrates -- sometimes making a move for the sake of making a move doesn't turn out too well.
The Twins have made a name for themselves by boasting one of the league's best bullpens on a yearly basis. Let's not allow a hiccup in that pattern to force the team into rash decisions based on panic.