Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Preliminary Look at the Twins Bullpen

In terms of the bullpen, this Spring really is an audition for a select few spots in the upcoming drama. Heading into the off-season last year it was the biggest question-mark the Twins had to answer and it remains the biggest question-mark heading into this season. It's quite early yet, the Twins have only played a handful of ST games, but we've had a chance to see an audition or two from each. Here are the potential cast members:

Joe Nathan - Closer
We're starting to get some answers to the question, "what type of Joe Nathan will we see?" So far he's had two, 1-inning outings with yesterday's being the most encouraging. I imagine the Twins will continue to be a bit cautious with him, but so far, so good, which is a huge relief (no pun intended :). Stay tuned.

Matt Capps - Setup man? Closer?
Agree with it or not, Capps is here for another season with the Twins. Capps would be well suited for either the setup role or the closers role if Nathan can't do it, but I suspect Capps will end up in the setup role, at least in the early part of the season. He gets a bad rap overall, but he did have a very good 2010 season, throwing 73 innings of 2.47ERA (3.23FIP), 1.26 WHIP ball...oh and he had those 42 Saves. He's one of the harder throwing bullpen options that the Twins have and he will be a staple at the back end of the bullpen in one capacity or another.

Jose Mijares - Setup man?
Jose had another solid outing yesterday, throwing a 1-2-3 inning. So far in his career with the Twins, Mijares has been a solid relief option, and after watching Jesse Crain leave via free-agency in the off-season, he could certainly be a contender for the setup role. Mijares struggled a bit in 2010 and he injured himself on an awkward play at 1st late in the season, but his 2.49 career ML ERA (3.78 career FIP) are encouraging. I have my doubts about Mijares; he has never been a dominant reliever and he seems prone to the "bad outing," but I think it's safe to say that Mijares will be relied upon for a bigger role in 2011.

Pat Neshek
To me, Neshek is the wildcard for the Twins bullpen this year. I wrote a more lengthy piece about Neshek a couple of weeks ago, asserting that Neshek's fastball velocity will determine the level of his effectiveness. He was absolutely fantastic his rookie year in 2007, but spent two years rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and was pretty ineffective in 11 appearances last season. So far this spring, Neshek has appeared in three games, all scoreless frames, and has allowed only one hit to go along with one K. His fastball last year was a full 2mph slower, on average, from early 2008 which lead to a much higher contact rate on his pitches and, ultimately, poor results. His control was also off which suggests to me that he was not fully recovered, even a year and a half removed from surgery. It would be fantastic for the Twins if Neshek's 2011 season even slightly resembled his 2007 season, I know I'll be rooting for him.

Anthony Slama
How frustrating was last year for Slama? He's been absolutely lights-out in the minor leagues, posting a career 1.95ERA and 1.06WHIP in 249 innings. Not only that, he owns a career 12.5 K/9 mark AND a 3.25 K/BB ratio. Those are absolutely stellar numbers, but when the Twins called him up in late July last year, he fell flat on his face and only lasted two weeks before being sent back down to Triple-A. This Spring isn't off to a good start either as Slama got knocked around the other day for 4 hits and 2 earned runs in 1 inning of work. Slama has the stuff, of that there is no doubt, but he needs to find the confidence to pitch in the Majors. If he does that he could be a truly valuable bullpen option, especially with his ability to get the Strikeout.

Alex Burnett
Like Slama, Burnett posted solid numbers (not nearly as good as Slama though) in the Minors, got a chance to show his stuff last year, and failed. He appeared in 41 games, posting a 5.29ERA and 1.573WHIP in 47.2 innings. That eventually earned a demotion to Triple-A and then returned to the Major League club for the month of September. His Spring is off to a much better start than Slama and has seen him throw 3 innings, allowing 1 run on 2 hits with 1BB and 1K. I believe there is a role on this team for a guy like Burnett, who was actually pretty tough on righties last year, but he'll have to do better than he did last season if he wants to stick around.

Jeff Manship - Long Reliever/Spot Starter
Manship's Major League stat page is pretty underwhelming, that is until you look at his FIP and xFIP from last season and see that it was over 1 1/2 runs lower than his ugly 5.28ERA. Manship isn't the kind of guy who's likely to get you out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the 7th inning, but he is the kind of guy who can come in when one of the starters gets pulled in the 4th and give you 3 decent to good innings. He has a fastball that averages about 90mph, he has good control (1.9 BB/9 last year), and he has done the spot start thing before. His Spring is off to a mediocre start (3IP, 3.00ERA, 2BB, 0K) but I can definitely envision him making the team simply because of his versatility.

Glen Perkins
Perkins virtually disappeared of the radar last year after an abysmal 2009 season. He spent most of the season at Triple-A, was called up in August, was sent back down at the end of August, and was called back up in mid-Sept. Prior to his time in the minors last year, Perkins actually had a sub-4.00 career ERA in the minors, and prior to the 2007 season, he was ranked as the #66 prospect by Baseball America. It just hasn't worked out for Perkins in the Majors and he has struggled at nearly every point. Overall Perkins has had a little more success vs. right-handed batters, but we're still talking about a .292 BAA which doesn't really cut it in the Majors. It wouldn't surprise me at all if Perkins didn't make the Major League club out of ST again this year, though if he does make the team, it most assuredly be as a long-reliever. Thankfully the Twins have enough starting rotation depth so I doubt we'll be seeing Perkins in a starting role (even a spot start) again.

There are others who might crack the bullpen this year including Jim Hoey, Scott Diamond, Anthony Swarzak, and Chuck James. I consider those guys the long-shots, but that's certainly open for debate. I think the fortunes of the Twins bullpen rest on two guys have bounce-back years and those two guys are Pat Neshek and Anthony Slama. If those two can be effective relievers, they could instantly transform this bullpen from a weakness to a strength. You also have to keep in mind that the Twins will have one of their rotation guys from last year in the 'pen (either Blackburn, Slowey or Baker) and we might also see young Kyle Gibson in a bullpen role this year as well. The Twins certainly have enough bodies to comprise their 'pen, it's simply going to be a matter of who is going to step up and execute.

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