Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Fixing the Bullpen

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.

8 comments:

TwinsFix said...

Completely agree. Nothing needs to be done.

Excellent job, Nick.

TwinsTerritory said...

I agree as well. I'll be upset if the Twins use any of their outfielders on a releif pitcher.

It might be nice to bring one in, but not at an over-valued price. We have pieces to work with, and the left side of the infield should be addressed first.

J. Lichty said...

While one can hope that the relievers who were not good last year rebound, the Twins need to do a better job at hedging bets than they did. So wedded to the idea of a man without options, no matter how putrid, must not be lost, could again cripple the team's flxibility in handling their own relievers who did not perform well. Holding onto Bass is emblematic, and is likely to repeat itself again this year with Humber (although Humber is better than Bass).

While the year Grant Balfour had with TB gives us all pause on jettisoning Jesse Crain, historically, once Twins releivers have jumped the shark, they have not rebounded well despite our wishes that they were just having an off year. Romero and Rincon come to mind. Balfour is an exception, but look at how long it took him to get back.

What the Twins need to do is keep as much of their powder dry in the minors while sorting out which of the returners can rebound.

Thus Mijares must start in the minors. I think Neshek has one option left, and until he can show he is healthy and has returned to 2007 form (he was not so great in 2008 even before the injury), he should be in the minors.

What happened last year, where Gardy was afraid to use half of his bullpen, must not be allowed to happen again this year.

Nick N. said...

Holding onto Bass is emblematic, and is likely to repeat itself again this year with Humber (although Humber is better than Bass).

There's a pretty large difference between Humber and Bass, and a lot more reasons to hold onto Humber. For one thing, the Twins have a lot more invested in Humber. He was one-fourth of their return for Santana, whereas Bass was some minor-league reject from the Royals that they acquired for nothing.

Furthermore, there are track records to examine. Bass was a sixth-round pick who turned into a career journeyman that was never anything special in the minors. Humber was a first-round pick with devastating stuff coming out of college who had his career derailed by a Tommy John surgery. That operation is now two years behind him, and he showed significant signs of being back to form during his second half in Triple-A this year, where was dominant.

Hanging onto Bass simply because he was out of options was a mistake. But Humber is a guy they need to keep.

While the year Grant Balfour had with TB gives us all pause on jettisoning Jesse Crain, historically, once Twins releivers have jumped the shark, they have not rebounded well despite our wishes that they were just having an off year. Romero and Rincon come to mind. Balfour is an exception, but look at how long it took him to get back.

The commonality between Balfour and Crain is that both dealth with significant arm injuries. Balfour always showed the potential to be a great bullpen arm but he just couldn't get his arm healthy and the Twins ultimately lost patience. Crain looked pretty OK this year, and if Balfour should serve as an example than we can only expect improvement next year. When Crain's been healthy, he's been good.

Rincon and Romero, on the other hand, both saw their performances drop for non-injury related reasons. There's a big distinction there. With guys like that, there is much less reason to expect a rebound.

Thus Mijares must start in the minors

I tend to agree with this. There's really no downside to starting Mijares in the minors. He has no experience in Triple-A and we can hardly declare him a lock-down eighth-inning guy based on 10 innings of work at the end of the season. He's available if someone in the current bullpen fails.

If Neshek is healthy, though, I think he needs to start in the majors. He doesn't have anything to prove.

Brett Werner said...

Hey Nick,
I know this isn't related to the Bullpen, but it follows up on some trade stuff (including your thoughts on Delmon). Let me know what you think:

http://twinsmvb.blogspot.com/2008/10/delmon-young-and-matt-cain.html

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