Five Questions From Travis: The Bullpen Bridge


Tonight as the Twins are wrapping up their first spring training game of the year, it’s time to address the 5th and final question from my esteemed colleague and Southside Showdown lead writer, Travis Miller.

Question #5:

"To the bullpen, Nathan looks healthy, but should he go down again, who can bridge to Matt Capps without Jon Rauch around?"

I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: when it comes to consistency, there are very few relievers you can count on from year to year. If I was forced to rebuild a part of a major league roster and I could pick any part, I would – without hesitation – choose the pen. Most bullpen arms are replaceable. Every year there are dozens of relievers who come out of nowhere and wind up being not just serviceable but valuable assets to their teams success. Because of this, I’m not too terribly worried about how the Twins pen will fare in 2011. The organization always finds guys to step up and they always seem to find a way.

Jon Rauch pitched well for the Twins in 2010. He had his rough spots like pretty much all relievers do, but he finished the season with a healthy ERA+ of 134. It was his highest ERA+ in a single season since 2004 when he posted a 166 in 30.2 innings pitched. Rauch has plenty of years ahead of him in his big league career, and I’d venture to guess that a decent number of them will be successful and productive ones for the 6’11” righty.

Would I like to have him back? I suppose I’d like to have him in the mix, but he was and remains far from irreplaceable. We also can’t ignore the drop off in his performance during the 2nd half of the season.

1st half: 34.0 IP, 2.38 ERA, 5.00 SO/BB and opponents hit 0.258/.285/.386
2nd half: 23.2 IP, 4.18 ERA, 2.33 SO/BB and opponents hit 0.281/.346/.323

Based on some of the other deals thrown at relievers this offseason, the Blue Jays committed a reasonable $3.75 to Rauch for 2011 and potentially another $3.75 million by way of a 2012 club option. I think Toronto got a good deal and can expect a reasonable return on their investment, but I understand why Minnesota let him walk.

So what plans do the Twins have to replace him?

Given the fact that Joe Nathan appears to be back healthy and rounding into form on schedule this spring, I don’t think there should be a lot of worry surrounding “if” he gets hurt again. Prior to missing last season with the elbow injury, Nathan had appeared in 64 or more games for seven straight seasons. Yes he could get hurt again, but I don’t think there is a much greater chance of him suffering an injury than any other reliever this season.

Were Nathan to go down for some season, Matt Capps is obviously the team’s Plan B at closer, but if Nathan is healthy Capps will be Nathan’s primary set-up man. In three* of the last four seasons, Capps has posted an ERA+ of 140 or better. Those three seasons were all better than Rauch’s 2010 so it is reasonable to say that he provides the Twins with an upgrade. Last year Capps wasn’t a member of the Minnesota Twins until July 29th when they traded Wilson Ramos and Joe Testa to the Nationals. Instead of have Capps around for 2 months as they did last season they will have him around for the entire season.

*That “other” season was his 2009 when he finished the year with a ERA+ of 72. Which just goes back to the fact that even good relievers are a bit schizophrenic with their results from year to year.

I don’t think there is much doubt that Capps is an upgrade of Rauch and a healthy Joe Nathan is an upgrade over the closer combo of Capps/Rauch. But let’s for the sake of argument, play along with Travis’ question and assume Nathan gets hurt for an extended period of time.

Matt Capps then becomes the team’s closer. It is a role that he is better suited for than Jon Rauch was last year so the Twins still come out ahead in this scenario. Now however we have to address the question of who will be getting the ball to Capps so he can close out games.

Since Capps and Rauch are righties we should look to replace their role with another righty. Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier are now gone so they’re not eligible for this discussion.

But as an aside when we’re talking about relievers with varying results from year to year, Crain may be the poster-boy for that phenomenon. His ERA+ in each of the last 5 seasons has gone from 128 to 80 to 117 to 94 to 137. He signed a 3-year $13 million contract with the White Sox this offseason and frankly they can have him.

Guerrier on the other hand was a much more stable commodity. In the past 5 seasons his ERA+ has been 131 or higher except for 2008 when it dipped to just 81. It was north of 180 in two of those seasons. I’d love to have him back with the Twins at a reasonable price, but the Dodgers blew that concept out of the water when they gave him a 3-year $12 million contract. He’s also averaged 75.5 appearances per season over the last four years and one has to wonder if that type of workload might take it’s toll sooner rather than later.

As we look toward 2011, there are 3 right handed relievers who I believe are primed to step up and they are all at different places in their career paths. There are a number of others who could provide an impact, but there are the 3 guys I think have the best chance for success.

23-year old Alex Burnett made his major league debut last season and wound up pitching 47.2 innings in relief for the Twins. He finished the season with a 5.29 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 79 ERA+ and 1.61 SO/BB and on the surface those might not look like the numbers of someone ready to become a reliable relief option. However, he only has 19.2 innings of experience at Triple-A as essentially jumped from AA to the majors. Over 6 seasons In the minors he had a 2.4 BB/9 and 7.0 SO/9. Burnett was able to maintain his SO rate in the majors which bodes well for his future but his BB/9 jumped up to an uncharacteristic 4.3. His walk rate should normalize with more major league experience.

27-year old Anthony Slama also made his major league debut last season, but his came in a much smaller sample size. In 4.2 IP, Slama struck out 5 but also walked 5 and gave up 6 hits. The 7.71 ERA and 2.36 WHIP don’t look all that appealing but there is no question he has the stuff to get major league hitters out. In 4 minor league seasons he’s racked up a 1.95 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 12.5 SO/9 in 249.0 innings pitched. Slama’s bugaboo has been his control and as a result his BB/9 has ranged in the mid-4s since he reached AA and AAA. With his ability to miss bats he can get away with a BB/9 in the mid-4s but only if can limit the number of hits allowed. He has consistently posted a H/9 rate right around his career mark of 5.7, so there is a very real chance he can do just that. If Slama could improve his control and limit his walks, he could reach a level of dominance that neither Crain nor Guerrier have been able to match.

I look forward to the potential contributions of Slama and Burnett, but for me the number one option to step up and provide the Twins with a lockdown reliever is 30-year old Pat Neshek. He’s probably the most overlooked player on the Twins roster by fans of other teams. Considering he’s only 22.1 innings since 2008 due to injuries that is certainly understandable. Prior to those injuries however, Neshek provided the Twins with a dominant relief option who presented opposing batters with a very unique and different look. Between the 2006 and 2007 seasons, Neshek gave the Twins 107.1 innings with a 2.69 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 2.8 BB/9 and 10.7 SO/9. If healthy he’s the Twins secret weapon.

From my perspective the Minnesota Twins are in very good shape when it comes to their RH bullpen options. There will surely be some bumps in the road, the 2010 bullpen surely had their moments, but I don’t anticipate that they will have much of a problem replacing Jon Rauch, Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier. Considering those 3 relievers received $32.5 million on the open market the Twins did the right thing with their bullpen.