Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Position Analysis: Relief Pitcher

Yesterday, I broke down the starting rotation, which I deemed to be "the club's strongest and deepest position." Today we look at a unit that falls on the opposite end of the spectrum. Unless you're engaging in starry-eyed optimism, it's tough to view the bullpen as a strength for the Twins as we enter the 2011 season. They lost several quality relief arms during the offseason and signed no one to replace any of them, so much will hinge on a return to form from Joe Nathan and the emergence of several unproven hurlers in unfamiliar roles.

Fortunately, the bullpen is certainly an area that can be improved over the course of the summer through in-season acquisitions, but that means parting with assets when there were a number of established relief pitchers available for nothing but a few million dollars (or less) during the offseason.

Let's take a look at how the bullpen shapes up as we enter the 2011 season:

Joe Nathan
2010 Stats: Did not pitch

Charles Krupa, AP
After missing the 2010 season with Tommy John surgery, Nathan entered spring training this year under the pretense that he would have to earn back a closer role that had been held by incumbent Matt Capps. As it turns out, the basis for the coaching staff's evaluation on this matter was not performance, as Nathan has been awarded closing duties despite allowing nine runs on 10 hits over 7 1/3 innings this month with four walks and only three strikeouts. Those numbers are certainly concerning coming from someone who hasn't pitched in a year after undergoing a serious elbow operation, but the Twins like what they've seen in terms of velocity and command from Nathan so hopefully their confidence is well warranted. If not, they do have the luxury of Capps waiting in the setup role.

Matt Capps
2010 Stats: 73 IP, 42 SV, 2.47 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 59/17 K/BB

The Twins gave up too much to get Capps at the trade deadline last July and this year they're paying him too much money. What's done is done, though, and at this point we're better off appreciating what he provides to the bullpen. Nathan's status will remain a question mark until we've seen him successfully close out several games, and should his spring training struggles persist Ron Gardenhire won't hesitate in shifting the proven Capps into the role. That's not a good scenario, since someone else would have to fill Capps' role as top right-handed setup man and no other candidate for that role has much experience pitching high-leverage relief innings in the majors.

Jose Mijares
2010 Stats: 32.2 IP, 3.31 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 28/9 K/BB

The 2010 season was a forgettable one for Mijares. Injuries limited him to about half of his normal workload, and when he was on the field he often lacked his typical sharpness. This year, the lefty is reportedly adding a two-seam fastball to his repertoire, which should improve his results against right-handed hitters (a vital skill in a bullpen that already includes two other left-handers). Mijares came to camp looking trimmer this year; if healthy, he should be a quality late-inning option throughout the season.

Kevin Slowey
2010 Stats: 155.2 IP, 13-6, 4.45 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 116/29 K/BB

Setting expectations for Slowey the reliever is not easy. We know that he's a good pitcher, and it's not hard to see his outstanding control being a real asset in the bullpen. Then again, he's made only four relief appearances in his major-league career after serving as a starter almost exclusively throughout the minors, so this is new territory for the righty. How will he handle being called on to throw in tight late-game situations? Will pitching in one-inning stints allow him to add a few ticks to his 89-mph fastball? Will his secondary stuff be maximized? Slowey certainly has the potential to succeed in relief, but like many other members of this unit he's a question mark.

Glen Perkins
2010 Stats: 21.2 IP, 5.82 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 14/5 K/BB

As a 28-year-old who's out of options and hasn't been effective since the 2008 season, Perkins seemed like a lock to be non-tendered this offseason. Instead, the Twins gave him a contract and now a spot in their bullpen. The team has cited Perkins' solid performance while pitching in relief last September as a key reason for retaining him, but -- even looking beyond the fact that opponents hit .326 against him during that minuscule 12-inning sample -- this seems awfully short-sighted. Perkins doesn't miss bats, has been bad against lefties and has always been a guy who's allowed a lot of base runners. I don't get it.

Dusty Hughes
2010 Stats: 56.1 IP, 3.83 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 34/24 K/BB

The Twins were very impressed when they faced Hughes as a left-handed reliever for the Royals last year. It's not hard to see why; when playing against Minnesota the southpaw allowed only three runs on nine hits over 13 1/3 innings. Unfortunately, he'll no longer be able to face the Twins and against all other opponents Hughes posted a 4.40 ERA, 1.60 WHIP and 28-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 43 innings.  In other words, he wasn't very good, and it was his first extended look in the majors as a 28-year-old who'd been fairly unspectacular in the minors. Dedicating two spots in a questionable bullpen to pitchers like Hughes and Perkins strikes me as an extremely bizarre decision.

Jeff Manship
2010 Stats: 29 IP, 5.28 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 21/6 K/BB

Rounding out the bullpen at the onset of the 2010 season will be Manship, a guy who spent some time there last season. In his big-league career, the right-hander has posted a 5.28 ERA and 1.55 WHIP, which aren't exactly the kind of numbers that inspire late-inning confidence. Manship has been quite hittable ever since reaching reaching the highest levels (he's allowed 260 hits over 209 1/3 innings between Triple-A and the majors) and unless that changes he won't be particularly useful. It will be interesting to see how Gardenhire elects to utilize him.


The Real said...

I can't remember where exactly I read this, but I recall seeing some numbers on how Slowey performs in the first couple innings of his starts, and that those numbers were fairly decent. Would that success translate into how well he does in a bullpen role or are the two situations substantially different?

Matt said...

I like your "interesting to see how Gardenhire utilizes them" line.

Unfortunately, he doens't look to have much to utilize.

Expect them to call some guys up and take some chances, possibly early, if the situation is real bad.

Good thing they stop pouring beer after the 7th inning stretch!

Josh said...

My biggest problem with the bullpen is that there's 7 of these guys, costing us a position player who might be able to hit a little on the bench.

The back-end looks pretty solid, assuming Nathan is ready to go. The Twins seem to think so, the numbers suggest maybe not...but if he is, Nathan, Capps, & Mijares is a nice crew to close out games.

Perkins is probably the mop-up long man, right? The just need to figure out which RH is going to be the guy who would pitch in innings 5-7, with Hughes looking like the LH answer. If Manship is that guy, Slowey could be the long man and making Perkins completely irrelevant. I'm betting that it's going to be Slowey, though. I suspect he'll end up being the guy who gets the call when the starter wobbles through 5 innings, but has too high a pitch count to start the 6th (Frankie Liriano, are your ears burning?) and they'll try to run him for 2 innings to get to Capps/Mijares/Nathan.

Haplo said...

What were Capps' American League stats?

One thing that remains understated in these conversations about the Twins' bullpen is that Twins starters, because they so consistently pitch with control and to contact, often go pretty deep. It's not unusual at all to see a Twins starter go 7IP. Granted, they were only in the middle of the pack last year in terms of quality starts (but that includes plenty of Blackburn's dogshit starts).

If the Twins starters - a moderate strength of the team, most people agree - can pull off quality starts more consistently this year, I become far less concerned with the bullpen.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree that starting pitching is such a position of strength on this team. Yes they have depth, but not a lot of quality. I think with Capps/Nathan the back end of the pen is fine. Mijares and Slowey will be a nice combo in the 7th/8th inning and Kyle Gibson will be in the rotation by Memorial Day which will allow Brian Duensing to move the BP where he belongs and take care of the 6th and 7th innings.
My biggest concern is the middle infield. Casillas is not reliable and they have no depth behind their starters. This is going to be a problem.

Anonymous said...

@ Matt;

Good thing there's no limitation to pouring beers after the 7th inning watching from home! lol

I think the bullpen will do fine, a lot of veteran leadership and the championship aura of the twins will allow these guys to really succeed. I see these guys playing out of their minds because of expectation. Hopefully I'm right! Great analysis!

J.D said...

Hughes has been sharp this spring. The team did part ways with a nice prospect for Diamond, so they must have faith in him too. To me, if Nathan pitches well the `pen will be ok.