I went to bed in the 8th inning of Game 6, my birthday was on Friday and I was out and missed Game 7...that said, I still caught the excitement of it and and my thoughts about this year's World Series can be summed up in one word: WOW. I love how a number of 'sportswriters' out there are all, "oh my gawd, this World Series SAVED baseball..." Um...no it didn't, it simply reminded everyone of how great of a sport baseball is and how exciting it can be. This whole season was great (home-town team aside) and the St. Louis Cardinals are an incredible story of how anything can happen if you just keep playing hard every day.
On the flip-side, my heart aches for the Texas Rangers and their fans. Back-to-back Game 7 losses in the World Series?? And I thought missing the playoffs for the first time in 2 years hurt. I just think of all the work that is takes to get to the World Series, then to do it in consecutive seasons and have nothing to show for it...it's heart-breaking. Overall, I thought it was a great series, it was quite compelling, I loved seeing Pujols make some history and I was really glad that there wasn't a "goat" or some extraneous circumstance that would ultimately distract from what a hard-fought series this was.
As we all bask in the glow of a great end to the 2011 MLB season, it's time to start talking Twins again - more specifically, it's time to start brain-storming ways that this team can attempt to field a much more competitive team in 2012. As has been reported on a number of blogs, the Twins look to have about $30M to spend this off-season and with the number of issues they have to address...figuring out how to spend $30M will not be a problem. For my money, the Twins need to address the bullpen first and as things are shaping up, there should be a number of intriguing options. The bullpen was clearly one of the Twins' greatest weaknesses this past season and as far as fixing things go, the bullpen is probably one of the cheaper fixes.
1. To Sign or not to Sign: Joe Nathan.
Those who say that the Twins should not re-sign Joe Nathan are the ones who point to his overall 2011 numbers, which are pretty ordinary. 4.84 ERA, 43/14 K/BB ratio, 1.16 WHIP - not closer-type numbers. That said, the last couple of months were much more Nathan-esque. Between July and the end of the season, Nathan threw 27.1 innings, striking out 27 and only walking 5 while saving 11 games. Considering the Twins only won 22 games in the second-half of the season, 11 saves isn't bad. Velocity-wise, Nathan only improved as the season went on which bodes well for his success next season and beyond. Ultimately, the question will most likely be cost - it wasn't a surprise at all that the Twins declined Nathan's $12.5M option. I think if they could sign the 36-year-old right-hander to a 2-year deal worth around $10-14M, I feel that they would end up getting their money's worth. In reading around other Twins blogs, it would seem I'm not alone in wanting Nathan back next year.
2. Identify your core bullpen pitchers and build around them.
Among the remaining in-house bullpen options (the obvious ones anyway), all of the main guys are arbitration eligible. Jose Mijaries, Glen Perkins and Kevin Slowey are all up for arbitration and the Twins could easily offer arbitration to all of them and not spend much cash. The most expensive of the three, Kevin Slowey, is worth the extra money because of versatility as a spot-starter. The total cost for all three would likely between somewhere in the $4.5 - $5.5M range and all three have been effective in the past. Around these 4 arms (Mijares, Perkins, Slowey and Nathan) - sign 2-3 additional bullpen pitchers. Options are plenty; here's a list compiled last year. There are a number of intriguing names on that list and it should not be any much trouble to land a couple of them on relatively cheap contracts. Some of the names that interest me are: Scott Linebrink, Jason Frasor (if the White Sox don't pick up his option), George Sherrill (left-handed, would be a nice set-up man for Nathan), and Michael Wuertz (could be a cheap option with good potential).
3. Don't sign any relievers to 3-year contracts.
Last year, it seemed like a number of teams lost their heads signing relievers to three-year deals. Of note in the AL Central were Jesse Crain (signed by the White Sox) and Joaquin Benoit (signed by the Detroit Tigers). Both pitchers end up having very good seasons, but one season does not a 3-year contract make. On top of that, for every example of a 3-year reliever deal that started well, you have an equally good example of one that did not (see: Rafael Soriano, NYY). With so many good names out on the market this year, there's no reason to be desperate. If you can't get Player X without a 3-year deal, move on and find someone else.
I know how this all plays out is much more complicated than I make it seem, but I really do feel that a re-vamped bullpen could add 15-20 wins to the season total next year. Twins relievers had 20 blown saves last year against 32 saves and 29% of the runners that Twins relievers inherited last year scored, which was right about average for the American League. If the Twins could reduce that blown-saves number from 20 to 10, that alone would be worth a $10-$15M investment in the bullpen. As was highlighted during the recently concluded post-season, bullpen pitching is critical to a team's success and if a team has a good bullpen, the confidence of the rest of the team increases accordingly.