Meanwhile, both of the Twins' top rivals in the Central made major acquisitions to supplement their bullpens, with the Tigers adding Joaquin Benoit and the White Sox adding Jesse Crain. One can certainly argue that the clubs overpaid for these players, but that doesn't change the fact that these are frontline relievers who figure to be strong late-inning options.
The Twins are taking a potentially dangerous gamble in bypassing the market in hopes of filling out their bullpen internally. They enter spring training with only two known commodities: Matt Capps and Jose Mijares. Capps performed well in the closer role after being acquired at the deadline last year, converting 16 of 18 save opportunities with a 2.00 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 21-to-8 K/BB ratio in 27 innings. If things go as planned, he'll slide down to a setup role this year and should be well suited for it. Mijares, meanwhile, is coming off an unspectacular season in which he was limited to 32 2/3 innings by injury. He should be fine as a lefty specialist.
Presuming the Twins roll with a seven-man bullpen, as is their norm, this leaves five remaining bullpen spots. One of those will most assuredly be filled by Joe Nathan, and I'm growing more and more confident that he'll be able to fulfill his goal of taking back the close role at the outset of the season. Reports on his throwing sessions this spring have been consistently positive, as he's registered higher velocities than he normally does at this time of year when completely healthy.
It's rare that a pitcher can return at something close to his prior level of effectiveness only 11 months removed from Tommy John surgery, but Nathan has plenty of things going in his favor. He's got a great work ethic, an optimistic attitude and a history of sustained good health. Those factors can go a long way toward aiding a speedy and successful recovery.
Assuming things go smoothly for Nathan, that gives the Twins three established late-inning options in the bullpen. Unfortunately, that might be where their comfort zone ends. Let's look through the candidates to fill the remaining four spots, along with their numbers from last year (only players currently on the 40-man roster will be considered):
Brian Duensing, LHP
2010 Stats (MLB): 130.2 IP, 2.62 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 5.4 K/9, 2.4 BB/9
Duensing is the one of the only players on this list who would provide the Twins with a fourth established commodity in the bullpen, having amassed 76 1/3 innings as a reliever in his first two big-league seasons (with tremendous success last year). However, Ron Gardenhire seems to feel that the southpaw has earned a spot in the rotation, so unless he struggles in spring training Duensing will likely open the year as a starter.
Kevin Slowey, RHP
2010 Stats (MLB): 155.2 IP, 4.45 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, 1.7 BB/9
After battling stamina issues while in the rotation last year, Slowey could be a candidate to succeed in shorter stints out of the pen. At the same time, 137 of his 149 professional appearances have been starts, so he has very little experience pitching in a relief role. He also seems a bit too hittable to be trusted in key late-inning spots, with a .280 lifetime BAA in the majors.
Nick Blackburn, RHP
2010 Stats (MLB): 161 IP, 5.42 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 3.8 K/9, 2.2 BB/9
Like the two pitchers before him, Blackburn is a trained starting pitcher who could be relegated to the bullpen as the victim of an overcrowded rotation this spring. Since becoming a full-time big-leaguer, only two of Blackburn's 94 appearances have come as a reliever, so as with Slowey it'd be an on-the-fly transition. I have an exceedingly difficult time envisioning Blackburn as an asset in the bullpen.
Pat Neshek, RHP
2010 Stats (A/AAA/MLB): 49.1 IP, 4.56 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, 4.2 BB/9
Bill Smith has described Neshek as a "wild card," pointing to his previous standing as one of the league's better setup men. Unfortunately, the right-hander hasn't been a particularly effective pitcher since the first half of the 2007 season, and that was a long time ago. In his first year back from Tommy John surgery, he battled spotty command and an 85-mph fastball. The results weren't very good. Neshek has much to prove.
Alex Burnett, RHP
2010 Stats: (AAA/MLB): 67.1 IP, 5.34 ERA, 1.62 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 4.1 BB/9
Converted from starter to reliever in 2009, Burnett was outstanding between Single-A and Double-A in his first year after the switch and got an early look in the Twins' bullpen last season. He impressed in mostly low-leverage situations over the first three months but then unraveled around the halfway point, earning a demotion to Triple-A and continuing to struggle there. Despite the overall shaky results in 2010, Burnett is only 23 and he's got pretty good stuff. He could develop into a trustworthy option, but that's more hope than expectation after his ugly results in the second half last year. He needs to get his control in check.
Jim Hoey, RHP
2010 Stats (AA/AAA): 52.2 IP, 3.25 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 12.0 K/9, 5.8 BB/9
Acquired from the Orioles in the J.J. Hardy trade, Hoey possesses high-end velocity that manifested in a jaw-dropping strikeout rate in the minors last year. The right-hander last appeared in the major leagues back in 2007 before missing all of the 2008 season due to injury. Since returning to action, he's had an extremely difficult time throwing strikes consistently, issuing 66 walks over 100 innings in Double-A and Triple-A over the past two years. The high-90s heat is enticing, but are the Twins ready to trust him to keep the ball in the zone? They showed little patience with Juan Morillo, a pitcher with similar issues.
Jeff Manship, RHP
2010 Stats (AAA/MLB): 127.1 IP, 5.16 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 2.0 BB/9
Whether pitching in Triple-A or the majors, Manship got pretty dreadful results last year, allowing a ton of base runners and a ton of runs. He's now 26 and does have a fair amount of MLB bullpen experience over the past couple seasons, so I see him as a likely candidate to grab a spot if he holds his own in spring training. With his solid command and legit curveball, it's not that difficult to envision him developing into a Matt Guerrier type, but considering how poorly Manship performed last year it's tough to confidently view him as anything more than a mop-up guy at this point.
Glen Perkins, LHP
2010 Stats (AAA/MLB): 145.2 IP, 5.81 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, 6.9 K/9, 2.5 BB/9
I'll be honest: I was pretty surprised when the Twins tendered Perkins a contract this offseason. Not only does he have a history of clashing with the front office, he couldn't even hold his own against Triple-A hitters last year, going 4-9 with a 5.81 ERA in 26 games at that level. I know he's had some success with the Twins in the past (back in '08) and the coaching staff felt they saw some flashes out of him in the bullpen late last year, but lefty hitters have a career .319 average against him and it's not hard to find southpaws in their late-20s with middling stuff (in fact, there are several others on this list).
Scott Diamond, LHP
2010 Stats (AA/AAA): 158.2 IP, 3.46 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 7.0 K/9, 3.1 BB/9
Plucked out of the Braves organization in the Rule 5 draft, Diamond is coming off a very solid season between Double-A and Triple-A, and has been fairly impressive at every level in the minors. He also has yet to throw a pitch in the bigs, and all but two of his 76 career appearances have been starts. He might make sense as a long relief guy, but it's hard to see him fitting in as anything more than that initially.
Dusty Hughes, LHP
2010 Stats (MLB): 56.1 IP, 3.83 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 5.4 K/9, 3.8 BB/9
The good news is that Hughes spent all of last season pitching out of a major-league bullpen. The bad news... well, where to start? It was his first time getting an extended look in the majors and he was 28, his numbers (aside from ERA, which isn't always a good stat to evaluate relievers in small samples) were thoroughly unimpressive, and he's been a rather mediocre pitcher throughout his minor-league career. In addition, the Twins lost an intriguing right-handed relief option (Rob Delaney) by claiming Hughes, who seems redundant with Perkins and Diamond -- not to mention non-roster invites Chuck James and Phil Dumatrait -- already around.
Anthony Slama, RHP
2010 Stats (AAA/MLB): 70 IP, 2.57 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 10.2 K/9, 4.8 BB/9
Slama's numbers stand out on this list, especially the strikeout rate. That's been the case for the 27-year-old right-hander throughout his minor-league career, but the Twins have opted to move him along slowly, apparently doubting his long-term outlook. In a brief MLB debut last year, Slama undeniably looked over-matched, allowing six hits and five walks in just 4 2/3 innings. If he can find a way to get the free passes in check, Slama could certainly be a difference-maker, but that's a big "if" for someone who's issued 77 walks over the past two years.
Eric Hacker, RHP
2010 Stats (AAA): 165.2 IP, 4.51 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 7.0 K/9, 3.4 BB/9
Looking past his 16-8 record, Hacker put up pretty unimpressive numbers last year as a 27-year-old in Triple-A, though it's worth noting that he was pitching in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. Like several others listed, his potential for this year looks closer to serviceable long reliever than impact arm.
To summarize, it seems like the Twins are taking a "quantity, not quality" approach with the bullpen for this season. All 12 of the players listed above can be called legitimate contenders for those final four relief spots (more accurately, it's nine pitchers going for three spots, since one is guaranteed to the loser in the fifth starter competition).
At the moment, though, it seems like a stretch to call any of those nine players major-league relievers. Some haven't proven fully recovered from past medical issues, some are aging minor-league journeymen, and the rest flat-out haven't proven they can throw strikes. You can add some of the non-roster invites in camp -- like James, Dumatrait, Carlos Gutierrez and Kyle Waldrop -- but they exhibit the same flaws.
I realize that many of the Twins' high-leverage innings will be handled by Nathan and Capps, but those two will only combine to accumulate -- optimistically -- about a quarter of the team's total relief innings. Other guys are going to need to contribute, often in crucial spots. Can it be said that any of the players listed have really shown enough in the past few years to be trusted in such situations?
Sure doesn't seem like it to me. But the Twins are gambling that a few of these guys will step up and take their game to the next level, and in a hurry. I suppose the team can also trade for bullpen help at some point if no one emerges, though hopefully not at the same exorbitant price they paid last year for Capps.
Some stat-savvy folks might tell you that the value of a bullpen is overrated. And largely that may be true. But having more than a couple relief pitchers who can be trusted to hold a lead is a vital aspect of any team that wants to go anywhere. From a fan's perspective, there's nothing more frustrating than seeing a hard-earned lead frittered away because the manager had no decent bullets to throw at the opposition's big hitters in the late innings. Many players will tell you there's nothing more demoralizing.
That's a feeling we in Minnesota have been fortunate to avoid for most of the past decade. The Twins have done a truly impressive job of maintaining a good-to-great bullpen year in and year out despite a fair amount of turnover. But I can't remember a time Gardy and Co. have faced so many question marks.
If they can forge an above-average bullpen out of this group, it will be their most impressive work yet.