Yesterday I listed a number of appealing free agents who could fill the Twins' need for right-handed help in the bullpen. I believe that if Terry Ryan wants to provide Ron Gardenhire with a reliable stable for the late innings, he'll need to spend a couple million to bring aboard one of these tried-and-true veterans.
However, I also believe that there are a number of intriguing in-house candidates that should not be ignored. While none of the following six relievers ought to be counted on outright as the club's top righty setup man from the start of the season, they all have a chance to make valuable contributions in the seventh and eighth inning this year and beyond.
In general, Twins fans are down on Burnett after watching him struggle to a 5.40 ERA with the big-league club over the past two seasons. However, I would urge those fans very strongly not to rush to judgment. While he's had his growing pains, Burnett is a 24-year-old with a fastball in the mid-90s and a slider that touches the upper-80s.
After dominating Ft. Myers and New Britain as a 21-year-old transitioning to the bullpen in 2009, Burnett never got much of a chance to pitch in Triple-A and has had to acclimate to the big leagues on the fly. He's still young and he's got a powerful arm. It wouldn't surprise me a bit to see him develop into the team's best right-handed eighth-inning option by the end of the year.
Injuries limited Slama to 37 innings in Triple-A last season and also probably cost him a chance to contribute much for the Twins, but he was as dominant as ever in Rochester before going down, striking out 42 while allowing only 27 hits with a 2.92 ERA. He avoided surgery for an achy right elbow at the end of the season and has pitched well in Mexico this winter, with a 1.76 ERA and 19-to-5 K/BB ratio in 15 1/3 innings.
Slama turns 28 on Friday and it's unclear whether the Twins will ever have much interest in giving him a shot in the bigs, as they removed him from the 40-man roster at season's end, but his consistently spectacular numbers in the minors certainly warrant an extended look.
Acquired from the Tigers for Delmon Young in August, Oliveros is a high-velocity, high-upside arm. He's had his bouts with control issues, but has averaged 11.2 K/9 in the minors and is still only 23 years old. While pitching in Venezuela this winter, he has posted a 1.33 ERA with 18 strikeouts and nine walks over 20 1/3 innings while touching the upper-90s with his fastball.
Gutierrez, 25, works with a hard and heavy heater that induces tons of grounders, helping him limit opposing hitters to 16 home runs in 321 career innings in the minors. In 2011, he notched 57 strikeouts in 62 1/3 innings for Rochester. That combination of whiffs and worm burners makes him very intriguing, although he needs to get better at limiting hits and walks. I came away very impressed after seeing him live at spring training last year.
The last remaining prospect acquired from the Mets in the Johan Santana trade, Guerra has largely been a disappointment since switching organizations. Last year, after another poor start in New Britain, the Twins finally gave up on him as a starter and shifted him to a bullpen role, where Guerra abruptly blossomed. After switching around the start of June, the hefty 6-foot-5 hurler posted a 2.80 ERA with 55 strikeouts and 11 walks over 45 innings. He's continued working as a reliever in the Venezuelan Winter League, posting a 3.71 ERA and 23-to-7 K/BB ratio over 26 2/3 innings. He's still only 22.
Burton is distinctly different from the rest of the players on this list in that, at age 30, he's not really a prospect anymore. He was, once, and he turned in a couple good seasons for the Reds in 2007 and 2008, but over the past few years he's battled injuries and after the 2011 season Cincinnati let him walk. The Twins smartly signed him to a minor-league contract to see if he can regain his prior form. It's an excellent gamble with no risk, and the type of move that could end up making Ryan look very, very smart.