While it was encouraging to see the Twins get back on the winning track this past weekend with a series sweep over the Angels, the bullpen remains a heavy concern. Twins relievers coughed up five runs between the seventh and eighth innings on Friday night, and weren't called upon in any remotely critical situations for the rest of the series as Kevin Slowey handed a 9-2 lead to the bullpen after seven innings on Saturday and Glen Perkins handed a two-run lead directly to the closer Joe Nathan on Sunday. Still, through 14 games, Twins relievers have combined to allow a 7.03 ERA and 829 opponents' OPS this season. It's been ugly.
The beleaguered relief corps took another hit yesterday when it was announced that Jesse Crain has been placed on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation. Crain struggled with his control on Friday night when he issued three walks and was charged with four runs over just 1/3 of an inning, but up to that point he'd easily been the team's best reliever outside of Nathan, posting a 1.59 ERA and 6-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio while allowing just one hit over his first six appearances. In spite of his struggles on Friday night, Crain was shaping up as a rare reliable arm in the Twins' pen, flashing a mid-90s fastball and an ability to miss bats. While La Velle E. Neal III reports that examinations of Crain's shoulder have revealed "slight inflammation ... nothing serious," one almost has to be alarmed to hear about any discomfort in Crain's right shoulder considering that he underwent reconstructive surgery for his labrum and rotator cuff less than two years ago. One also could be excused for being a bit dubious of this team's initial diagnoses of shoulder injuries considering how badly they missed the mark on Boof Bonser a few months ago.
Replacing Crain on the Twins roster for the time being will be Jose Mijares, who had a terrible spring but looks to have gotten back on track in Triple-A, where he allowed just two hits and zero walks while striking out four over 6 1/3 scoreless innings. Mijares adds a second left-hander to complement Craig Breslow and also could be a potent late-inning option if he returns anywhere close to the form he showed last September, but it's tough to know what you're getting from him considering how up-and-down his performances have been over the past couple years.
The other bullpen shakeup occurring over the past few days the move to was designate Philip Humber for assignment while using his open roster spot to claim Juan Morillo off waivers. Now, I will say that I'm not necessarily a fan of removing Humber from the roster as long as it means losing him from the organization (which is very likely). The 26-year-old right-hander didn't perform well this spring and hasn't looked good at all in a few regular-season appearances, but I tend to be very patient with once-promising players who dealt with major injuries, which is why I've been stubbornly hyping Jason Kubel for three years running, why I've been fairly patient with Crain, and why I will also be patient with Pat Neshek and Boof Bonser when they return. With that being the case, I still think Humber has some upside and don't like the idea of losing him for nothing, but I'm also willing to admit that his upside is probably limited at this point and losing him is unlikely to come back haunt the Twins in a major way. I certainly think he was more deserving of a spot on the roster than R.A. Dickey or Luis Ayala, but at this point the difference between those three pitchers might be negligible.
Anyway, back to Morillo. One of my chief concerns entering this season was a lack of right-handed power arms in the bullpen, thanks to season-costing injuries to Neshek and Bonser. That concern would be magnified if Crain's current ailment were to turn out to be something serious. Well, when you look at Morillo, "right-handed power arm" is one term that could pretty accurately describe him. Morillo is a fire-baller, and he displayed that in his Twins debut on Saturday night when he fired fastballs across the plate at speeds topping 95 mph on his way to a scoreless inning. Indeed, as Aaron Gleeman notes, Morillo has averaged 96.5 mph with his fastball over his brief major-league career, easily topping any member of the current Twins staff and in fact ranking as one of the hardest fastballs in all the league.
The main issue for Morillo has been harnessing that devastating fastball and throwing it in the strike zone on a consistent basis. Morillo has averaged 5.4 walks per nine innings over the course of his minor-league career, and last year in Triple-A he issued 56 walks in 59 2/3 innings for a ghastly 8.4 BB/9IP rate. In spite of his solid showing on Saturday night, I'm sure it won't be long before we catch a glimpse of the command issues that caused the Rockies to sour on him. Adding an erratic arm like that to a bullpen that has already been dealing with some serious control issues doesn't sound like a recipe for relief, but Morillo will initially assume Humber's role as a low-leverage backend guy, and given the Twins' history of turning discarded relievers with historically mediocre control into useful bullpen parts (Dennys Reyes and Craig Breslow come to mind), this certainly seems like a worthwhile project. If Rick Anderson can find a way to improve Morillo's control even modestly, he could turn into a powerful weapon for a Twins team that currently lacks hard throwers outside of Nathan.
For the time being, the Twins have subbed out Crain and Humber for Mijares and Morillo. The latter two both have electric arms and considerable upside, but also have struggled to consistently throw strikes in their young careers. They'll now jump into a bullpen desperate for quality innings, in an organization known for teaching control. It would seem that both are exactly where they need to be in order to succeed.