Evaluating The Twins’ Struggling Bullpen

Of the four clubs who underwent major bullpen renovations this past offseason, three have thus far met the challenge.  The Diamondbacks needed to make major upgrades given their bullpen's shoddy performance in 2010, and their new relievers have done well.  The Padres chose to deal away some quality arms to fill other holes on the roster, though the 'pen is still deep enough that San Diego has barely felt the loss.  The Rays lost virtually their entire 2010 bullpen to free agency, but they have held steady with a number of quality, low-cost replacements.

And then there is the fourth team, the Twins.  Like Tampa Bay, the Twins found themselves with several relievers (Jesse Crain, Randy Flores, Brian Fuentes, Matt Guerrier, Ron Mahay and Jon Rauch) eligible for free agency and given how the relief market exploded this winter, Minnesota chose not to bring back any of them.  The holes were filled by the likes of Jim Hoey, acquired from Baltimore in the J.J. Hardy trade, waiver claim Dusty Hughes, and most notably, incumbent closer Joe Nathan, expected to make a strong return from Tommy John surgery.

So with Nathan closing, Matt Capps earning $7.15MM in his last arbitration year as a set-up man, southpaw Jose Mijares returning and the odd men out of the rotation battle (Glen Perkins and Kevin Slowey) joining the 'pen, the Twins crossed their fingers and hoped their relief corps would at least hold its own.

Unfortunately, like so many other things in this seemingly snake-bitten year for Minnesota, things haven't worked out as planned.  Entering Thursday's play, the Twins ranked fifth-last in baseball in bullpen ERA (4.82) and opponents were batting a whopping .369 against Minnesota relievers.  The Twins' inconsistent starting pitching and injury-plagued lineup have garnered most of the blame for their poor start, so the bullpen has largely escaped blame simply by not being as glaringly bad as the other aspects of the team.

The most obviously disappointing reliever has been Nathan, who lost his closer's job in mid-April and thus far has a 7.30 ERA and eight walks against just 10 strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings of work.  While Capps has stabilized the closer's spot and Perkins (0.51 ERA in 17 2/3 innings) has excelled, the rest of the 'pen has pitched terribly.  Hughes, Hoey, Alex Burnett and Jeff Manship have all been shelled, while Mijares has dealt with control issues and has an 0.78 K/BB ratio.

Where did the Twins go wrong?  When you look at the Rays, the other team that lost most of its bullpen, they tried to address the problem by bringing new arms into the fold.  While it remains to be seen how the likes of Kyle Farnsworth will perform over a full season, being proactive about the issue has seemingly benefited Tampa Bay.  Minnesota, however, stood pat and presumed that Nathan's return would stabilize everything.  This seemed like a miscalculation to begin with, given that most pitchers struggle in their first season back from Tommy John surgery, and indeed, Nathan's poor form was a fatal blow to a 'pen that was already lacking in depth. 

It also creates an interesting problem for this winter as Nathan has a $12.5MM team option for next season.  Does Minnesota pick up the option and again bet on Nathan pitching like his old self, or do the Twins buy him out for $2MM and risk seeing Nathan regain his All-Star form for another team?  Would the Twins then re-sign Capps to be the full-time closer, or would they go outside the organization?

In the wake of what already looks like a hugely disappointing campaign, the 2011-12 offseason will be one of Minnesota's most interesting in recent memory.  GM Bill Smith will have no shortage of problems to solve as he tries to get the Twins back on the right track, but Smith cannot afford to spend another winter overlooking the bullpen. 


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