Let the Kyle Waldrop Era Begin: Or, Why Overpaying For Relief Help is Unnecessary

The Twins recently lost Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier to free agency, and will more than likely lose Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes as well. That’s pretty much half of the 2010 bullpen. Making matters worse, the remaining crew is full of question marks. Pat Neshek was terrible in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, which obviously does little to instill fan confidence in the returning Joe Nathan. The rest of the crew is, well, it’s essentially Rochester’s bullpen: Alex Burnett, Anthony Slama, Jeff Manship, as well as career minor-leaguer Eric Hacker and unproven rule 5 draft pick Scott Diamond. That leaves Jose Mijares and Matt Capps as the only sure things in the bullpen thus far.  Right now, it appears the bullpen will be one of the teams’ great weaknesses coming into the season, but that isn’t necessarily the case.  Find out why, after the jump.

As Dave Cameron notes, relievers are seldom ever worth multi-year contracts. While it is debatable whether fWAR is an effective measure of player value when it comes to relief pitchers, Cameron’s overall reasoning is sound:

As a group, teams have paid for premium production and instead received the same level of performance that they could have expected if they had signed minor league free agents. The evidence couldn’t be any stronger: signing guys like Guerrier and Crain to three year deals is just throwing money away. It’s not that they’re bad pitchers; it’s that relief pitchers are so prone to huge swings in performance that trying to project the long term future of any of these guys is simply folly.

Though the Twins have certainly been guilty of over-valuing relief help (signing Joe Nathan to a 4-year deal, trading top prospect Wilson Ramos for the mediocre Matt Capps), they have, for the most part, been reluctant to hand out multi-year deals to relievers. Of course, they have historically had one of the lowest payrolls in baseball over the past decade, so the front office couldn’t bring in expensive relievers even if they wanted to. Budget constraints often forced the front office to be resourceful in putting together a relief corps, scouring the waiver-wire for cheap, serviceable relievers; making smart trades; and, when necessary, relying on in-house talent to fill holes. They’ve also been unsentimental about letting their better relievers walk when they become too expensive, as they did with Dennys Reyes, and now with Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier. It’s a strategy that’s proven pretty effective over the past decade, with the Twins’ bullpen consistently ranking among the best in the league.

Though the Twins have recently enjoyed an increase in payroll, there is little evidence of a sea change in their approach to building a bullpen.  The front office doesn’t appear terribly concerned about the bullpen coming into 2011, and they shouldn’t be, at least not yet. While they may be losing about half of their relief arms (and the remainder might not be, um, good), it also means they have an estimated $4 million coming off the books. There is still a lot of relief help available on the market, with about 50 relievers still looking for work, and it’s likely most of them will still be looking for work come spring.  Since solid bullpen arms are hardly a scarce commodity this season, there’s no reason to get involved in a bidding war for the services of middling relievers like Crain and Guerrier.

Should they fail to bring in any outside relief help before the season begins, the Twins do have a few of intriguing arms in AAA.  Kyle Waldrop is one, with a 2.57 ERA and 3.00 K/BB last season, though he isn’t exactly the type of strikeout pitcher that the ‘pen could use.  Rob Delaney is probably about as major-league ready as he’s going to get, though he had a rough 2010, with a 4.72 ERA and 4.00 K/BB. Carlos Gutierrez (2.25 ERA, 3.00 K/BB) and David Bromberg (3.98 ERA, 3.62 K/BB) also had fine seasons, though it’s unlikely either will win a spot in the bullpen out of spring training.  The Twins could probably get as much production out of these guys as any of Rauch, Fuentes, Guerrier, or Crain, but without paying more than the league minimum.

Erin is a contributing writer for Twinkie Talk.  You can email her at erinm725 [at] gmail [dot] com.

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Tags: Jesse Crain Joe Nathan Kyle Waldrop Matt Guerrier

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