The Twins Bullpen Might Be Just Fine


Some people are optimistic about the Twins’ chances to rebound from a 99 loss season, while others are understandably pessimistic. Some are disappointed with the loss of Michael Cuddyer and the less than exciting offseason moves the team made, while others think Terry Ryan made some shrewd decisions on a shoestring budget. But there’s one thing everyone seems to agree upon: the Twins bullpen is terrible. That unit blew save after save in 2011, and the only free agent signed to a Major League contract, Joel Zumaya, blew out his elbow in a warm-up session (incidentally, that session made the Onion seem eerily prescient). Not only did the Twins fail to sign any top talent, but they lost Joe Nathan, arguably the best reliever in the team’s history, to Texas.

Yes, there are plenty of reasons to believe the Twins will have a pitiful bullpen once again.

Here’s the thing, though: it might not be that bad. If you use just a little imagination, it’s possible to envision the Twins’ 2012 bullpen being pretty competent.

Let’s start by looking at what a bullpen needs in order to be successful. Every modern bullpen is anchored by a closer and two or three competent setup men who can pitch the seventh and the eighth innings. It also helps to have a LOOGY (Left-handed One Out GuY for those who haven’t seen the term before) or two to come on and retire a left-handed slugger in a key situation. Finally, the bullpen is filled out with a couple of innings-eaters. You can have a decent bullpen even if your innings-eaters aren’t very good. Their primary job is to pitch in blowout games so that the good pitchers do not get tired.

We’ll start with the closer. I’ve written time and again about how much I dislike the Matt Capps deal because he is getting paid too much and he cost the team a draft pick. That said, he’s on the team now, and when he is pitching his salary really does not matter. All that matters is whether he can pitch reasonably well. And if you accept that his off-year last year was largely the result of an injury that has since healed, then you have to believe Capps will be all right on the mound. Sure, he’s not an elite closer, and he may not even be the best reliever on the team. But closers are overrated anyway, and all we need to ask is for Capps to complete the save 85% of the time. Seems reasonable, right?

Next, the setup men. One setup position is nailed down. Glen Perkins suddenly learned how to throw 97 mph last year, and that turned out to be a great career move. He showed off a 2.48 ERA and 9.5 K/9, which are exactly the numbers you want to see from your best relievers. All he needs to do is keep that up.

How about the other setup men? Jason Bulger was my off-season pick as a possible surprise star out of the bullpen, thanks to his time as an above average setup man for the Angels. But his first two outings of the spring have shaken my theory to the core. On Wednesday, Bulger gave up four runs in two thirds of an inning. The good news is his ERA actually went down – from 135.00 to 81.00. In two brief outings, Bulger has walked five and allowed six hits, including a grand slam. Okay, so Bulger probably isn’t the answer.

No problem, though. The other non-roster JB, Jared Burton, has been quite effective. A few innings before Bulger’s Wednesday meltdown, Burton pitched a dazzling fifth in which he obtained a flyout, a strikeout, and a 1-3 groundout on just five pitches. Burton, too, has been a competent setup guy in the past. Back in 2008, he had a 3.22 ERA and struck out a batter per inning. He’ll never be a dominant, shut-down type eighth inning guy, but he could be a dependable short reliever a la the 2009 or 2010 version of Matt Guerrier.

I cannot tell you who will win the last setup slot, but there are plenty of candidates. I would urge the Twins to take a chance on a guy with some velocity here. Lester Oliveros, Esmerling Vasquez, Alex Burnett, and Luis Perdomo all can let the fastball fly. It would be ridiculous to expect all four to suddenly become strikeout machines, but if just one thrives, that’s all the Twins really need. I would like to see the Twins trot these three out as much as possible this spring to see if one can impress. If none of them does, just give the last setup slot to Brian Duensing, who did well there in 2009 and 2010.

The LOOGY position should be fairly easy to fill, because the team has quite a few lefties in camp. Phil Dumatrait, Aaron Thompson, and Matt Maloney are all left-handed. As I wrote before, Dumatrait is surprisingly close to being an decent lefty specialist – lefties have a career .237/.298/.329 slash line against him.

Finally, the innings-eaters. Give one job to Duensing if he isn’t needed as a setup man, though “innings eater” is not the right title for him. I think he’d be great as a “utility pitcher,” a guy who can pitch the eighth inning if needed one day, act as a LOOGY the next, and make an occasional start if a starter can’t go for some reason. He could be the Nick Punto of the pitching staff. As for the other innings-eater slot, let Anthony Swarzak or Rule 5 pick Terry Doyle have a shot at it. Both are capable of burning up three or four innings in an emergency.

All things considered, the Twins do have the makings of at least an average bullpen. There are never any guarantees in baseball, and there especially no guarantees for relievers, who are often great one season and terrible the next. But the team actually does have the right ingredients, so we might as well look on the bright side for now!