Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Position Analysis: Relief Pitcher

Today I’ll wrap up the Position Analysis series by breaking down perhaps the most concerning unit on the Twins. In 2008, the bullpen was a glaring weakness for this club, particularly late in the season when many meaningful ballgames were lost in the late innings. During the offseason, Bill Smith did little to actively upgrade the relief corps, and it seems that the Twins will mostly be relying on internal improvement. They’ll need a lot of that, since they’ll be without Dennys Reyes, Boof Bonser and Pat Neshek.

A look at the five bullpen locks, as well as the folks vying for the final two spots:

The Closer: Joe Nathan
2008 Stats: 67.2 IP, 39 SV, 1.33 ERA, 74 K / 18 BB, 0.90 WHIP

Nathan is just 55 saves shy of Rick Aguilera’s franchise-leading career total.

While the rest of the Twins’ bullpen trudged through a difficult 2008 season, Nathan went ahead and put together one of his best seasons to date, posting the lowest ERA of his career while allowing less than one baserunner per inning and racking up 39 saves. Nathan has been one of the most consistent relief pitchers in baseball over the past five years and if he stays healthy, there’s little question that he’ll remain automatic in the ninth inning. If his shoulder flare from a week ago eventually turns out to be something serious, the Twins may be in trouble.

Setup Man: Jesse Crain
2008 Stats: 62.2 IP, 3.59 ERA, 50 K / 24 BB, 1.37 WHIP

All in all, Crain’s 2008 campaign should be viewed as a success. Coming back from major shoulder surgery, the right-hander showed mid-90s velocity on his fastball and posted numbers fairly similar to the ones from his last year prior to the injury. Unfortunately, Crain’s success got lost in the bullpen’s struggles, and he was hit hard in some key situations. He’s looked good this spring so the hope is that he can become a reliable eight-inning guy in front of Nathan. If he can’t, the Twins lack compelling alternatives.

Lefty Specialist: Craig Breslow
2008 Stats (w/ Indians & Twins): 47 IP, 1.91 ERA, 39 K / 19 BB, 1.13 WHIP

Breslow was one of the most pleasant surprises of last season, posting a 1.67 ERA and holding opponents to a .180 batting average over 38 2/3 innings after being snagged from the Indians in May. Breslow was particularly effective against left-handers but pitched well against righties as well, making him a much better option than Dennys Reyes. Breslow has had success everywhere he’s been in the majors, but has only accumulated 75 /13 career innings and so must prove that he can repeat his performance from last year. I’m optimistic.

Middle Reliever: Matt Guerrier
2008 Stats: 76.1 IP, 5.19 ERA, 59 K / 37 BB, 1.59 WHIP

In 2007, Guerrier ranked fourth in the AL with 73 appearances. In ’08, he tied for first in the league with 76 appearances. All this work seems to have caught up with Guerrier, who struggled a bit toward the end of ’07 and completely broke down late last year. Through much of his career, Guerrier has proven capable of posting solid numbers, so the Twins will have to hope that he can rebound this year and show that his arm isn’t shot.

Middle Reliever: Luis Ayala
2008 Stats: 75.2 IP, 5.71 ERA, 50 K / 24 BB, 1.45 WHIP

In and of itself, the Ayala acquisition this offseason wasn’t necessarily a bad move. The problem is that Ayala is basically in the same boat as Guerrier -- both have been successful pitchers earlier in their careers, but both pitched very poorly last year. When you’re trying to assemble an improved bullpen, relying on multiple pitchers with mediocre stuff to rebound from dreadful seasons is probably not the wisest strategy.

The final two bullpen spots are not set in stone, so here’s a quick look at the contenders and the favorites to fill each spot…

Second Lefty

Jose Mijares
2008 Stats: 10.1 IP, 0.87 ERA, 5 K / 0 BB, 0.29 WHIP

Mijares was a breath of fresh air last fall when he joined the Twins as a September call-up and shut down the competition in his first big-league stint, allowing just one run on three hits and no walks over 10 1/3 innings. Yet, anyone who has followed Mijares’ minor-league career surely worried that the 23-year-old was pitching over his head. He’d consistently struggled to find the strike zone throughout the minors, yet didn’t issue a single walk during his time with the Twins. Reality has caught up in a hurry. After getting kicked off his winter league team due to attitude problems and showing up at Twins camp out of shape, Mijares has struggled badly with his control and gotten hit hard in exhibition play. He’s a real long-shot to make the team out of spring training, but still has electric stuff and should arrive in Minnesota at some point this year.

Brian Duensing
2008 Stats (AAA): 138.2 IP, 5-11, 4.28 ERA, 77 K / 34 BB, 1.33 WHIP

With Mijares losing his grip on the bullpen role of second left-hander, Duensing has emerged as a surprise contender. He has pitched very well this spring and holds a 3.46 career ERA in the minors. I openly wondered last spring how Duensing would find a way to the major leagues onto the Twins’ big-league roster considering how far back he was in the starting pitching pecking order, but this might be his best shot. He’s earned it. He’s not a dominator, but possesses the capability to deliver quality innings in low-pressure situations.

Favorite: Duensing

Long Reliever

Philip Humber
2008 Stats (AAA): 136.1 IP, 10-8, 4.56 ERA, 106 K / 49 BB, 1.42 WHIP

Overall, Humber’s 2008 stat line looks pretty mediocre. However, he showed clear improvement over the course of the season, which is something you like to see from a young pitcher still just a couple years removed from Tommy John surgery. In April and May, Humbers strikeout rate was way down, his walk rate was way up, and he allowed opposing hitters to bat around .300 against him. But in June, his K-rate shot up, the walk rate dropped off a cliff, and the BAA dropped by about 30 points. Those trends continued through the rest of the season, and in August Humber had his best month, holding opponents to a .237 average while posting a solid 3.66 ERA and 37-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio before finishing the season with the Twins in September. Humber has a good arm, has pitched well this spring and is out of options, so he’s basically assured a spot on the Opening Day roster. With his nasty curveball, he could ultimately develop into a strong middle reliever.

R.A. Dickey
2008 Stats (w/ Mariners): 112.1 IP, 5-8, 5.21 ERA, 58 K / 51 BB, 1.56 WHIP

People seem to get excited about Dickey because he throws the knuckleball, but it’s worth noting that the guy has a 5.57 career ERA and has never finished a big-league season with an ERA under 5.09. A closer look at the numbers shows that he’s been far more reliable as a reliever than as a starter, but in general he just hasn’t been a good pitcher over the course of his career. It’s nice to have a guy like him stashed in Triple-A, and that’s the role he should serve coming out of the spring.

Jason Jones
2008 Stats (AA): 148.2 IP, 13-7, 3.33 ERA, 91 K / 49 BB, 1.31 WHIP

The Twins apparently saw something they liked in Jones since they selected him out of the Yankees’ system in the Rule 5 draft, but it’s tough to say what that was. He’s a 26-year-old with barely any experience above Double-A and thoroughly average numbers throughout the minors, and he has hardly been lights out this spring. He’ll probably either be returned to the Yankees or kept in the minors in return for a minor prospect.

Favorite: Humber