Last week I examined the state of the Twins' starting rotation as we move forward into the new year. Today's post will break down the relief corps.
Early on last season, it appeared that the bullpen would be one of the Twins' greatest downfalls. Arm injuries to Pat Neshek and Boof Bonser had shelved two of the team's most appealing late-inning options for the year, and the team's offseason acquisition aimed at replacing the production of these two -- Luis Ayala -- was looking like an uninspiring option at best as he struggled early on. Meanwhile, Craig Breslow, who'd been one of the team's most reliable relievers in '08, found himself waived in the middle of May after the team grew tired of his inability to put the ball over the plate.
Ultimately, though, the Twins' bullpen settled in and by the end of the year it was actually one of the league's stronger units, finishing fourth in the AL in ERA. It appears that Bill Smith will do little if anything to augment the relief corps this offseason, so by the time spring training rolls around, narrowing down the bullpen will likely be a matter of sorting through the various internal options and settling on the six or seven best candidates.
In looking ahead to the Twins bullpen for the 2010 season, there are some reasons for optimism and also some reasons for serious concern.
The greatest reason for optimism, of course, is the expected return of Neshek. The right-handed setup man missed much of the 2008 season and all of the 2009 season after suffering an elbow injury that ultimately required Tommy John surgery, but by all accounts he is on track to be at full strength in time for the start of the upcoming campaign. Now, being at full strength doesn't necessarily equate to being at full effectiveness; Neshek has missed a substantial amount of time so a return to his previous form could take some time and very realistically might not happen at all. His obscure delivery, which seemingly puts additional strain on the elbow, further complicates matters. If the effects of Neshek's injury cause him to become timid in his delivery or cause him to alter his approach entirely, he'll likely need additional time to get comfortable and gain full command of his pitches.
With all that being said, anyone who watched the team during the 2006 and 2007 seasons know what a crucial contributor Neshek can be in the back end of the bullpen and he's had plenty of time to recovery from surgery. So while he shouldn't necessarily be counted on, especially early in the year, there's plenty of reason to hope he can be a useful piece for the Twins in 2010.
Looking beyond Neshek, there are a couple other hurlers who might be able to provide additional help for the Twins bullpen in the upcoming season even if Smith continues to leave that area unaddressed. Anthony Slama and Rob Delaney, two of the organization's most accomplished minor league relievers, both finished the '09 season in Triple-A, so both will be poised to step in at the major-league level at any time this year. They might even be able to compete for jobs in spring training. If either of these historically dominant right-handers -- Slama in particular -- can carry his outstanding minor-league performance to the big stage, they could serve as a serious boon to a bullpen that is currently lacking in power arms.
Yet, despite the solid potential for reinforcements, there are plenty of reasons to be worried about the bullpen as we look forward. Unlike others, I'm not particularly concerned about Joe Nathan. I think the cries of despair regarding his late-season struggles were hugely overblown; it's not remotely uncommon for hard-throwing relievers to wear down a bit late in the season and Nathan was just one of many elite closers who melted down in the October last year.
I am, however, somewhat concerned about the two men who spent much of the season setting Nathan up. Jose Mijares and Matt Guerrier were both exceptional overall last year, but a closer inspection of their underlying numbers and trends leads me to wonder whether they'll be able to replicate those performances as we move forward.
Mijares saw his strong rookie campaign come to a rather discouraging close. Even beyond the well publicized drubbing he took in the clubhouse after losing his temper and causing teammate Delmon Young to get beaned in a late-season game, Mijares looked downright hittable and seemed to lack confidence on the field as the year came to a close. Moreover, his manager displayed decreased confidence in him. Ron Gardenhire showed a very quick hook with Mijares as the season winded down, allowing him to record two or fewer outs in each of his final seven appearances (Mijares had recorded at least three outs in 63 percent of his appearances prior) and the lefty was removed before recording a single out in both of his final two regular season appearances. Similarly, Mijares struggled in the postseason, yielding a key home run in Game 2 against the Yankees and walking the only batter he faced in Game 3.
There's no arguing with Mijares' overall results last year -- a 2.34 ERA and 1.18 WHIP are outstanding numbers for a 24-year-old rookie -- but he finished the season with a clear lack of confidence and that could be a problem if it carries forward into next year, particularly considering his historical problems with control (both on and off the field).
Guerrier, meanwhile, possesses his own set of question marks. The righty bounced back brilliantly from a disastrous 2008 season by posting a 2.36 ERA and 0.97 WHIP while serving as one of the league's most reliable setup men. Yet, the same concerns continue to exist surrounding his extreme usage. Guerrier led the AL in relief appearances for a second straight season last year, and while the heavy usage didn't produce the same clear negative late-season effects that it has in the past, he did cough up three homers in his final six appearances of the regular season and one wonders how his arm will hold up in the coming campaign. On top of that, Guerrier's outstanding numbers last year were buoyed by a .214 batting average on balls in play. His career average in that category is .273 and his previous career low was .250, so once his luck inevitably starts to even out it could lead to significant regression.
In general, the bullpen picture is unclear at this point. We know that, barring injury, Nathan, Guerrier, Mijares, Jon Rauch and Jesse Crain will be there. The remaining spot(s) will be up for grabs among a group that is likely to include Slama, Delaney, Bobby Keppel and whatever starters miss out on a rotation spot. All in all, that seems like a group with pretty solid upside, but with very real potential to struggle.