Thursday, March 25, 2010

Position Analysis: Relief Pitcher

Today, we wrap up the Position Analysis series by taking a look at the bullpen. At one point, this was shaping up to be one of the team's strongest units; Pat Neshek and Boof Bonser were set to return after missing all of 2009, adding a pair of power arms to a group that had already finished strong last year. The Twins ended up trading away Bonser, but later replaced him with Clay Condrey, who figures to match the production Bonser might have provided (albeit in a different form). The real loss comes in the form of Nathan, who will miss the season due to an elbow injury that will require Tommy John surgery.

Nathan's loss will be felt in the ninth inning, but odds are that someone from within the organization (or outside of the organization) will be able to step into that closer role without costing the team too many wins. Yet, beyond just losing a closer, the Twins are losing 70 innings of excellent, high-leverage performance in Nathan. While the current bullpen members will have to step up and fill that void, that still leaves 70 innings that will have to be filled by a player who might not have even been on the roster otherwise. As such, the Twins' bullpen depth will be tested this year in Nathan's absence.

Fortunately, if ever there was an acceptable time for the Twins to lose their elite closer, this is it.

The aforementioned return of Neshek, combined with the return of every key member from last year's relief corps and the presence of a few seemingly ready and capable arms in the high minors, gives the Twins more bullpen flexibility than they've had in past years. Nathan will be missed, but there are enough quality arms here that the Twins should be able to withstand his loss.

Let's take a look at the five pitchers likely to make the bullpen out of spring training, as well as a few others who have a shot at the sixth and (maybe) seventh spots or could get a shot to step in at some point during the year.


Jon Rauch
2009 Stats: 70 IP, 3.60 ERA, 49 K / 23 BB, 1.33 WHIP

Rauch seems likely to get the first stab at filling Nathan's shoes in the ninth inning. At nearly seven feet tall, he delivers from a different trajectory than any other pitcher in the league, which should help him keep hitters off-balance in one-inning stints to end games. Indeed, for his career, Rauch has a 3.09 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in save situations compared to 3.79 and 1.23 overall. With that being said, he's been hit hard at times over the past few years and his control isn't great, so it's unclear how long he'll retain closing duties.

Matt Guerrier
2009 Stats: 76.1 IP, 2.36 ERA, 47 K / 16 BB, 0.97 WHIP

Guerrier was spectacular last year, ranking among the league leaders in appearances for a third straight season while allowing less than one baserunner per inning and holding opponents to a .207 batting average. It was the second time in three years that Guerrier has been one of the league's best setup men, and I suspect that his proven ability in that role will deter Ron Gardenhire from trying to nudge him into the closer spot despite the numbers suggesting that such a course of action might make sense. Be wary, though; Guerrier's tremendous overall numbers last year were buoyed by an unsustainable .214 batting average on balls in play, and there's no telling whether the extensive wear on his arm over the past few seasons might start to creep up on him again like it did late in the 2008 campaign.

Jesse Crain
2009 Stats: 51.2 IP, 4.70 ERA, 43 K / 27 BB, 1.45 WHIP

Earlier this week, I posted the following tweet: "For what it's worth, my guess is that Crain finishes the season as the Twins' team leader in saves." That's partially based on a gut feeling, but it's also based on the facts that Crain had extensive closing experience in the minor leagues, historically hasn't struggled much against left-handers (though that certainly wasn't the case last year) and pitched extremely well during the final couple months of the '09 season. That last point is the most salient; Crain underwent major shoulder surgery prior to the 2008 season and it can take a long time to fully return from such an operation. Crain's performance in August and September last year suggests that he's fully back, and if he can keep throwing like that he can be a dominant force in the ninth inning.

Jose Mijares
2009 Stats: 61.2 IP, 2.34 ERA, 55 K / 23 BB, 1.18 WHIP

Over his first 81 major-league appearances, Mijares has posted a 2.12 ERA while allowing only 53 hits in 72 innings. Those are outstanding numbers, and they're largely the result of proper usage; he's held left-handed hitters to a minuscule .458 OPS and Gardenhire has given him the opportunity to face a lot of lefties. If his role is expanded too much, Mijares' mediocre control and susceptibility to righty hitters are likely to become liabilities. Fortunately, Gardy seems to recognize those flaws, which is why Mijares isn't being viewed as a legitimate contender for the closer role and why he'll likely keep the same LOOGY label this season.

Clay Condrey
2009 Stats: 42 IP, 3.00 ERA, 25 K / 14 BB, 1.21 WHIP

The Twins nabbed Condrey after he was non-tendered by the Phillies this offseason, and will pay him $900K to handle middle-inning duty in the bullpen. That's a higher sum than they'd have been likely to pay either Bonser or Bobby Keppel, who were both sent packing, so clearly the Twins have faith that Condrey can be a valuable piece. The veteran righty has posted a 3.16 ERA in 111 innings over the past two seasons. He doesn't strike many people out but has registered exceptional ground ball rates in each of the past two years, so his four homers allowed this spring shouldn't be too alarming.


Pat Neshek
Coming into the spring, Neshek seemed like a lock to open the season in the minors. In spite of his successful big-league track record, he hadn't pitched in a big-league game since May of 2008. However, Neshek has looked great this spring, and with Nathan gone the Twins will be needing an extra right-handed power arm for the late innings. Quickly, Neshek's chances to coming north with the team seem to be improving, as do his chances of ultimately taking over ninth-inning duties.

Brian Duensing
I mentioned Duensing as a candidate to start the other day, but if he makes the team out of spring training my guess is that it will be as a long reliever. He'd give Gardenhire an extra left-handed option behind Mijares, and his history as a starter makes him a good candidate to pitch in long relief.

Ron Mahay
Mahay spent the final month or so of the 2009 season with the Twins and performed well as a second lefty specialist. Just this week, the team re-signed him to a minor-league contract. He's 38 years old and no one's idea of a dominator at this point in his career, but it wouldn't come as any surprise to see him round out Gardenhire's bullpen.

Anthony Slama
Drafted out of college as a 22-year-old and moved somewhat methodically through the Twins' system, Slama isn't viewed by many as a great prospect because of his advanced age. However, it's tough to look past his absolutely spectacular minor-league numbers, and he's been outstanding in limited duty this spring. I doubt he'll make the team out of spring training, but I'd be stunned if he's not pitching for the Twins by July.

Rob Delaney
Delaney has risen through the minor-league ranks alongside Slama and posted similarly strong numbers. He needs to prove himself over a prolonged period at Triple-A, but he's another guy who can be called upon at any point this season and figures to be a productive big-league reliever.

Alex Burnett
A converted starter, Burnett had tremendous success last year in his first season as a full-time reliever, posting a 1.85 ERA and 0.97 WHIP in 78 innings split between Single-A and Double-A. He'll presumably open this season in Rochester, where a strong showing could get him a big-league look. Unlike Slama and Delaney, though, Burnett is still quite young (only 22) so he won't be rushed.