The Rays have been the center of the free agent defection universe this winter, most notably losing franchise player Carl Crawford to the division rival Red Sox. Tampa has also waved goodbye to key relievers Dan Wheeler, Joaquin Benoit, and Randy Choate, and figure to do the same to Chad Qualls, Grant Balfour, and Rafael Soriano. They'll feature a completely rebuilt bullpen when the 2011 season begins, but they're not alone.
The Twins, owners of one of the game's best bullpens in 2010 (3.49 ERA), have also dealt with a mass bullpen exodus. Setup men Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier left town for three-year deals while Brian Fuentes is looking for a similar contract as well. Jon Rauch and Ron Mahay are free agents that remaining unsigned. That fivesome combined for 240 1/3 innings with a 3.03 ERA, which will certainly be tough to replace.
Matt Capps finished the season as the team's closer, and he'll return as an arbitration-eligible player. Lefty Jose Mijares returns as well, joining fellow southpaw and Rule 5 pick Scott Diamond. The latter could end up the rotation, however. Anthony Slama was up briefly in 2010, but he and his impressive minor league track record (1.95 ERA, 12.5 K/9) figure to get a longer look in 2011. Alex Burnett, Glen Perkins, Rob Delaney, and Jeff Manship will also be returning. Hard throwing Triple-A righty Jim Hoey came over in the J.J. Hardy swap.
The Twins also have a rather significant relief ace in the hole. Joe Nathan is returning from Tommy John surgery and is expected to be ready for the start of the season, so he'll presumably step right back into his familiar closer's role. That pushes Capps back into a setup role, mitigating the loss of Crain and Guerrier somewhat. Pat Neshek will also be further away from Tommy John surgery, and he could be a major addition if he returns to his 2006-2007 form (2.68 ERA, 10.6 K/9 in 107 1/3 innings).
If the current cast of characters doesn't workout, GM Bill Smith has shown the willingness to go out and trade for bullpen help during the season. He acquired both Fuentes and Capps this past summer and Rauch the summer before. Two years ago he swung a move for Eddie Guardado. Next winter's crop of free agent relievers includes Heath Bell, Jonathan Papelbon, Jonathan Broxton, Francisco Cordero, Ryan Franklin, and Mike Gonzalez, some of whom will surely be made available in trades.
Minnesota lost a lot of quality relievers this offseason, but they still have a strong end-game duo in Nathan and Capps. There are enough warm bodies to try in middle relief, but if nothing sticks they can always go outside the organization for help. Fixing a bullpen in-season is standard practice in today's game, and 2011 will be no different for the Twinkies.