Thursday, January 28, 2010

Upcoming Roster Decisions

Prior to Tuesday's Jim Thome signing, this might have been a good guess at how the Twins' 25-man roster will break down coming out of spring training this year: five starters, seven relievers, nine starting position players, four bench players. That's how Ron Gardenhire rolled out of spring training last year, and considering his professed affinity for a deep bullpen, it's how we imagine he'd have liked to roll again this year.

Yet, the addition of Thome changes the game a bit. For as much as I like the move, there's no denying that Thome offers extremely limited flexibility as a bench player. He truly can't play in the field (he's started a total of four games at first base over the past four years) and he's one of the slowest runners in baseball. Thome's utility will purely be as a hitter, which means that Gardenhire is going to have to strategize around him at times, using replacement fielders and pinch runners at a high rate.

This might force the Twins to go with a five-man bench and a six-man bullpen. That'd be less than ideal, since it would leave the Twins without much in the way of a mop-up man or long reliever. Of the six guys who can be considered locks for bullpen spots, only Clay Condrey could be viewed as a candidate for that role, and he's pretty borderline given his history.

Originally, the plan for the Twins was seemingly to place the one of the odd men out of the race for the fifth spot in the rotation -- which appears to be shaping up between Brian Duensing, Francisco Liriano and Glen Perkins -- in that last bullpen spot as a guy who could come in and throw several innings should a starter's day end early. This takes away that option. If they want to have that starter-built pitcher in the bullpen to soak up innings, either the Twins will deal one of their current short-outing relievers (which still strikes me as a fairly strong possibility) or they will go with a four-man bench.

Let's explore that latter option. A four-man bench would almost certainly consist of Thome, a back-up infielder, a back-up outfielder and a back-up catcher. Presuming that Brendan Harris is the starter at third base, this leaves the infield spot up for grabs between Matt Tolbert and Alexi Casilla, both of whom are out of options. There's no clear candidate for the fourth outfielder spot, but since it would have to be someone who can man center, Jason Pridie stands out as the only suitable internal candidate at this point. Meanwhile, the second catcher job would go to either Drew Butera or Jose Morales -- likely Butera at the start of the season due to Morales' recent surgery.

As you can see here, some decisions will have to be made in the near future to whittle the roster down to 25. With both Casilla and Tolbert out of options, one of those guys is almost certainly going to have to go should the Twins opt for a seven-man bullpen. If the Twins sign another player to start at second or third, the roster crunch becomes all the more tricky, which is another reason I doubt we'll see another signing to shore up the infield. If the Twins decide to go forward with a six-man bullpen, I have to imagine we'd be seeing some sort of move to change the reliever alignment, because I can't see anyone of the Nathan/Guerrier/Rauch/Mijares/Crain group being stretched out to pitch long outings and it would be very uncharacteristic of the Twins to carry only one pitcher who can serve in long relief (not to mention only one lefty reliever). This is the main reason I didn't expect Crain to be tendered a contract -- he's a one-inning righty set-up guy, but not quite as reliable as Guerrier or Rauch (or a healthy Neshek for that matter). I think Crain is a nice pitcher and I'm optimistic about his chances for this year, but he'll be occupying a valuable roster spot and sucking up $2 million of payroll.

So, might Crain or another reliever be moved? Will the Twins seek to trade Casilla or Tolbert so one of them isn't lost for nothing this spring? And what about Perkins? Is the team still looking to deal him, as they reported were earlier this offseason?

These are questions to keep in mind as we move forward with only three weeks left before pitchers and catchers report.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Thome, the Twins and Free Agency

With the month of January nearing it's end and the Twins still quiet on the free agent front, many fans have been getting itchy. The team seems well poised to make a run this season, but there are a few holes remaining that many would like to see addressed through external avenues. The team's reported $5 million offer to Jarrod Washburn earlier in the offseason seemed to signal that there is some wiggle room left on the 2010 budget, so fans have been hankering for a big splash in free agency. The splash came yesterday, but it wasn't exactly a cannon ball.

The two remaining free agents who have garnered the most discussion as potential solutions to the Twins' infield opening are Orlando Hudson and Felipe Lopez. Both are quality hitters who play second base and seem like logical fits given the team's needs. Yet, both of these players seem to be seeking multi-year deals and given that they are both relatively young and coming off strong seasons, it seems reasonable to believe that both might eventually get their wish. But it almost certainly won't be with the Twins.

Right or wrong, the Twins have made clear over the years that they don't view free agency as a viable way to build a team. Their dabbling in free agency has been almost exclusively restricted to low-cost one-year deals with little upside, and the results have been predictably pitiful. Looking back through the team's free agent signings over the past several years, from Adam Everett to Livan Hernandez to Sidney Ponson to Ramon Ortiz to Rondell White and so forth, we repeatedly find players who performed so poorly that they didn't last through the entire year with the club -- at least not in the capacity they were signed to fill. Only once over this span have the Twins extended a multi-year deal to an external free agent. It was Mike Lamb, and considering the disastrous results of that experiment (Lamb was so bad the Twins had to cut him in the first year of his deal and eat nearly his entire salary the second year), it's not likely to have warmed the organization up on the idea.

Now, granted, the Twins are in a better position financially than they have been in the past. But I still can't envision them offering multi-year contracts to any free agents, particularly considering how murky the payroll situation becomes in 2011. If either Hudson or Lopez eventually becomes more open to a one-year deal, it's possible that the Twins would pursue one of them, but plenty of teams will be bidding for those guys if all it takes is a single-year commitment.

That's why Jim Thome, who signed with the Twins yesterday on a one-year deal worth $1.5 million plus incentives, was a far more realistic target. Is he as appealing as an everyday second baseman like Hudson or Lopez? Of course not, which I suspect explains a lot of fans' lukewarm reactions to the signing. But Thome will help the Twins. He'll provide a quality veteran bat off the bench that the roster had been lacking, and if used optimally he can frequently start at DH against right-handed pitchers, with Jason Kubel sliding to left field. Thome, 39, might be long in the tooth and incapable of playing defense anywhere on the field, but he was still a productive hitter last year and he has a 1043 career OPS against right-handed pitchers. Plus, he'll be a threat to come off the bench and hit the ball out of the park; the Twins currently have no one that fits that mold. In a division that features some of the American League's best right-handed pitchers (Justin Verlander, Jake Peavy, Zack Greinke, Rick Porcello, Gavin Floyd and Max Scherzer, just to name a few) and also features all right-handed closers, Thome will have plenty of chances to make a serious impact.

At the price the Twins got him, this signing was a no-brainer. It's a great addition and while he might not be the everyday player a lot of people were hoping to add, he's a Hall of Fame player who still seems to have something left in the tank.

As for Hudson and Lopez, I don't expect the Twins to make a serious play for either one of them unless we get to mid-February and one of them essentially falls in Smith's lap, much like what happened with Joe Crede a year ago.

More likely is that Smith simply waits for Crede himself to fall into his lap again.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Announcing the MSP 2010 Twins Annual!

As most of you are aware, I teamed up last year with John Bonnes, Parker Hageman and Seth Stohs to form TwinsCentric, a group of writers dedicated to producing specialized premium content for adamant Twins fans. Thus far, we have put out two publications: the Trade Deadline Primer last July and the Offseason GM Handbook in October. Both of these releases were met with strong sales and plenty of wonderful feedback; for that were are infinitelty appreciative.

Today I am pleased to announce our latest venture, the Maple Street Press 2010 Minnesota Twins Annual. This will be our most expansive effort yet, as our partnership with Maple Street has allowed us to bring in a broad range of writers and has put the design phase into the hands of talented professionals. The MSP 2010 Twins Annual will be a thick, hard-copy magazine packed with all sorts of great content previewing the Twins' 2010 season. Working with an experienced, large-scale publisher in Maple Street also means that the magazine will be less expensive (this one retails for only $12.99, whereas the hard copy of the Offseason GM Handbook went for $21.99) and available on newsstands as well as via mail order.

Tentative cover.

The magazine will cater to the tastes of the casual and hardcore fan alike. Articles will cover the Twins from a multitude of different angles, with some delving into advanced statistics and others providing more traditional analysis. You'll find player profiles, prospects rankings, position-by-position breakdowns of the Twins' organizational depth, extensive coverage of Target Field, a lengthy interview with Ron Gardenhire, historical narratives on past Twins seasons and tons more. The list of contributing writers is vast, consisting of veteran journalists, respected authors and of course plenty of familiar names from the Twins blogosphere.

We're really excited about this publication, and I know its contents will appeal to Twins fans of all stripes. It's set for release in early March, but you can pre-order your copy here. I'll pass along more information as the release nears. Thanks, once again, to everyone who has supported TwinsCentric and Twins blogging/writing in general.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cost Relief

Now that we've learned the concrete salary figures for 2010's arbitration-eligible Twins players, we have a more clear picture of how the team's payroll will shape up this year. More specifically, we now know how much the Twins will be spending on the six relievers who can reasonably considered locks for the bullpen. It's a hefty amount:

Joe Nathan: $11.25M
Matt Guerrier: $3.15M
Jon Rauch: $2.9M
Jesse Crain: $2M
Clay Condrey: $900K
Jose Mijares: $450K

TOTAL: $20.65M

So the Twins will be spending more than $20 million on relief pitchers, and that's before we even include a seventh reliever who is likely to round out to the group. If Francisco Liriano takes that spot -- which seems a reasonable guess at this point -- the bullpen's price tag will rise over $22M. That represents a marked increase over last year's Opening Day bullpen budget, which was around $17 million.

The bullpen is obviously an important unit for a ballclub and it's good to see the Twins pumping resources into improving this part of the roster after some shaky times over the past few years, but with raises coming across the rest of the roster over the next couple years, you can bet one of Bill Smith's top priorities will be cutting costs in this department. It just probably isn't feasible to continue paying millions of dollars to nearly every member of the bullpen, which is a big reason many people were viewing Crain (who is likely to be the team's fifth option out of the 'pen this year) as a non-tender candidate.

What does this mean? It means that the organization will be counting on guys like Anthony Slama, Rob Delaney and Alex Burnett to take strides forward this year and establish themselves as legitimate options to take over spots as soon as next year. Barring a trade, Nathan will stick around through 2011 or 2012 and continue to command a high salary, but by next year we might see him supplemented by low-cost young players like the ones mentioned above -- along with Neshek and Mijares -- while the expensive veterans such as Rauch, Guerrier and Crain move on.

This would give the Twins a great deal more flexibility to spend on other areas, namely the rotation, which figures to get significantly more expensive over the next several years. And so, the progression of the organization's closest relief prospects will absolutely be worth monitoring over the course of the season.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Who You Calling Crazy?

Earlier today, La Velle E. Neal III had a post on his blog detailing the current status of the Glen Perkins situation. This is a hot topic, because Perkins entered the offseason as one of the Twins' most viable trade candidates given his repeated run-ins with the front office during the past season, but there hasn't been much indication that the left-hander is drawing a lot of interest.

In his post, Neal references trade talks that the Twins had with the Padres earlier this winter involving Perkins and third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff. Neal notes that the Padres were looking for more than Perkins as a return, and credits the Twins for backing off. He then goes on to make a couple of rather befuddling statements.

First: "Perkins and Kouzmanoff are similar players in that they are still looking for their breakthrough season."

I guess that's technically true. Neither Perkins nor Kouzmanoff has had a truly great season as of yet, despite the fact that both were highly regarded as prospects. However, when looking at the total body of work from both players it's easy to see that Kouz is far more accomplished. In three seasons since becoming a full-time player, he has posted a .263/.309/.436 hitting line; while that doesn't seem particularly impressive at first glance, one must note that he's doing his hitting in the league's most pitcher-friendly ballpark in San Diego. OPS+, which accounts for park effects, puts Kouzmanoff at 103 over that span -- and he's been consistent, with marks of 103, 100 and 100 over the past three years, respectively. Since an OPS+ of 100 is considered average, that puts Kouz as an average to above-average hitter in each of the past three seasons. Once his quality defense is factored in, we find that Kouzmanoff has been a pretty darn good player during his three years as a starter with the Padres.

Conversely, Perkins has a had a rather mucky major-league career thus far. After compiling a handful of relief appearances during the 2006 and 2007 seasons, Perkins joined the Twins rotation in 2008. In two seasons as a starter with the Twins, he has amassed a 4.99 ERA and 1.48 WHIP over 247 1/3 innings. Using ERA+, which is essentially the pitcher's version of the OPS+ metric we used for Kouzmanoff above, Perkins comes in with an 85 mark over those two years, putting him well below average. Whereas Kouzmanoff, at his worst, has essentially been an average hitter, Perkins topped out with a 95 ERA+ in 2008.

Once you add in the fact that Perkins has a long history of injuries -- some of which remain causes for concern -- and had well publicized spats with his team's front office throughout the past season, there's little question which of the two players currently holds more value. The idea that the Padres were out of line for requesting more than Perkins in return for Kouzmanoff is pretty specious, and it's a shame that Neal is perpetuating it.

In that same vein, Neal goes on to make the following comment: "Suggestions that the Twins should have added Alexi Casilla to the deal are crazy."

You can make the argument that Perkins and Casilla is too much to give up for Kouzmanoff, but crazy?? While he's still young, Casilla holds a .244/.301/.314 hitting line over nearly 1,000 major-league plate appearances. With the exception of a strong stretch in the middle months of the 2008 season, he has not shown any ability to produce at the big-league level, and he has consistently garnered poor ratings on the defensive side. Casilla maintains some upside thanks to his quality minor-league track record, but at this point it's tough to view him as anything other than a potential utility infielder, and the Twins have plenty of those lined up. On top of everything, I'm fairly certain he's out of options, and given that there may very well be no room for him on the Twins' roster come April, unloading him for a player that can help the team this year could be something of a coup.

I'm not all that keen on Kouzmanoff. He's a low-OBP guy and the Twins are currently in need of players who can get on base. But when beat writers are indicating to fans that opposing general managers are trying to scam the Twins by asking for Perkins and Casilla in a trade, they're planting the wrong types of ideas in people's heads. From an objective standpoint, neither of those players has very much trade value at this point.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Cuddyer vs. Nathan: Who's Expendable?

The Twins' increased budget in the upcoming 2010 season has been a popular topic of conversation in many circles, and this blog has been no exception. But, as reports leak out that appealing free agents such as Orlando Hudson are seeking multi-year deals, it is pertinent to look ahead at how the team's payroll will shape up in 2011.

Travis Aune of the blog Travis Talks had a nice post earlier in the week examining this very subject. Travis lists out projected salary commitments for the 2011 season, and while he had to employ some guesswork (Joe Mauer's salary, various arbitration figures), his estimates seem reasonable. Even accounting for the subtracted salaries of Nick Punto, Jon Rauch, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier and Carl Pavano, who will be free agents, Travis arrives at an estimated total of $91 in commitments to 18 players. Depending on how high you believe the club's overall payroll will go next year (and Travis' estimate of $100 million seems fair), this doesn't leave a whole lot of money to fill the remaining spots on the 25-man roster.

This is most likely the reason the Twins have shied away from aggressively pursuing players like Hudson and Adrian Beltre, who clearly fit a need but are hesitant to settle for a one-year deal. The fact that the Twins were apparently willing to offer $5 million to Jarrod Washburn for this year suggests that Bill Smith is still willing to spend a bit more on the 2010 roster but is wary of the increase in commitments the following year.

If the Twins want to have a bit of financial flexibility to address holes in 2011 with something other than cheap rookies, they may need to dump salary in order to clear out some space. And as we look at the team's current contracts, there are two very obvious candidates for such a move: Michael Cuddyer and Joe Nathan, who will both be in the final guaranteed year of their lucrative contracts.

Cuddyer, whose '11 option was activated just after the conclusion of this past season, is scheduled to make $10.5M next year. And Nathan, who will be entering the final guaranteed year in his deal (though his does possess a $12.5M club option for 2012 with a $2 million buyout), will make $11.25M. Clearing either of those commitments from the books would create a significant amount of space to address other areas.

So now we have to ask ourselves: if it came down to it, which guy would we rather see go? I like both Cuddyer and Nathan and would prefer to have them both on the team, but if we're being realistic about finances there's no question that dealing one of them would be a logical move, particularly if they perform well this year and maintain solid trade value.

There are a number of considerations to weigh as we contemplate this decision. Which player is more valuable to the team, both on the field and off it? Which can be more easily replaced? Which will bring back more in a trade?

There really aren't any easy answers to these questions and opinions are sure to differ. As far as value, the Win Probability Added (WPA) metric suggests that Nathan has been worth an average of about 3.6 wins per season to the Twins over the past three years, whereas Cuddyer rings in at an average of 0.48 wins per season -- which was his exact figure last year. I'll note that I think WPA tends to exaggerate the value of closers, but that's a substantial gap nevertheless. Meanwhile, Wins Above Replacement pegs Nathan as having been worth 6.2 total wins over the last three years; Cuddyer 4.3. It's also worth noting that Nathan has shown a far greater ability to stay healthy.

It's difficult to quantify Cuddyer's value to the lineup overall as a threatening right-handed power hitter who can slot between Mauer and Justin Morneau, but at the same time it's difficult to quantify Nathan's value as a steady and dominant high-leverage reliever in a bullpen that has experienced its fair share of turnover and turmoil over the years.

Who's more replaceable? That question is even tougher than the last. The Twins have shown great aptitude with taking quality relievers and turning them into all-star closers over the years -- with Nathan and Eddie Guardado serving as prime examples -- but no one currently on the team looks like anything close to a slam-drunk replacement. Meanwhile, it isn't easy to find prime-aged right-handed hitters who can belt 30 homers on the cheap, although -- despite my pal Twins Geek's allusions to the contrary -- players of Cuddyer's ilk (weak defensive corner outfielders who can hit for power) are generally available at a reasonable cost. Marlon Byrd and Jack Cust are but two examples who have signed on the cheap already this offseason.

As far as trade value is concerned, that's really too sticky a topic for me to even dive into right now. Considering their price tags, only contending teams are likely to show interest in players like Nathan and Cuddyer, so the value of these two players on the trade market will likely be dictated by how many contending teams have needs at the positions they play. And again, much depends on how both players perform this year.

Cuddyer and Nathan were both key contributors to the Twins' past two AL Central title runs and are both well-liked core players. Yet, letting one of the two go after this season (or perhaps even during it, depending on the circumstances) is is an option that should at least be sitting in the back of our minds. Because even with the payroll boost that has come along with the new stadium, the Twins are headed for a tight budget in 2011 and could be in trouble if more holes emerge than the ones they've currently got.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Evaluating Rumors

Since becoming involved with the Twitter scene a few months ago, I've come to find that there are certain things I like about the service and some things I don't. One thing I really like about it is that it allows me to keep a finger on the pulse of Twins fans at large, since I follow and read the tweets of so many fans of varying age, gender and background.

Over the past few days, that pulse has been racing a bit. That's because fans have been distressed by a recent report that the Twins had made an offer to veteran starter Jarrod Washburn. There's a tendency amongst a lot of fans to hear a rumor of any sort, immediately interpret it as 100 percent true, and react accordingly. I would recommend putting any speculation you hear from a media member and blogger and putting it through the sniff test before directing anger at the Twins' front office for something they very possibly might not have done.

The initial report on Washburn, which I referenced in passing during Thursday's post, was filed by a CBS Sports writer named Scott Miller. If you recognize that name, it might be because Miller covered the Twins for the Pioneer Press back in the '90s. That fact, combined with the fact that the Twins reportedly attempted to trade for Washburn during the 2008 season and the speculation that they've been interested in him since he became a free agent this offseason, have lent credibility to this report. But, in cases like this, it's best to remain skeptical until you hear something from a source that you can truly trust.

While Miller might still have some connections with the Twins, he hasn't covered the team in over a decade. Writers on the national scene just don't have the same type of inside access to a team that our local beat writers have, and those national writers also seem to have a greater interest in concocting rumors in order to get their name out there. I'm not saying these writers for major publications are blatantly fabricating stories, but I have found that they are far more likely to write and publish a rumor based on very little actual evidence.

Some fans find it annoying that La Velle E. Neal III and Joe Christensen don't comment on their blogs about every Twins-related rumor that pops up, but I find it extremely refreshing. To me, those two seem far more discerning about which rumors actually have legs, which makes them far more trustworthy to me. I recall that during the Johan Santana frenzy during the 2007-08 offseason, Sports Illustrated scribe Jon Heyman (the genius baseball mind who helped keep Bert Blyleven out of the Hall of Fame once again this year by leaving Bert off his ballot while casting a vote for Jack Morris, employing the impeccable logic that "those who watched jack morris know they were watching a hall of famer") reported something like 600 false trade rumors involving Santana. Yet, the only writer who accurately predicted the exact trade ahead of time, to my recollection, was Christensen, who wrote about a Gomez/Humber/Mulvey/Guerra package several weeks before the actual deal went down. That earns him credibility. What has Scott Miller done to earn such trust from Twins' fans?

Incidentally, Neal did take the liberty of looking into this latest Washburn rumor, and posted on his blog yesterday that he had "spoken with several people in the organization and received NO indications that an offer has been made." I was also somewhat amused by this tidbit in Neal's piece: "And, as one person with the club told me, Brian Duensing might be better than Washburn right now." That's because I had basically said the same thing in Wednesday's post:
I'd rather settle for Brian Duensing in the fifth spot than spend several million dollars on Washburn while ignoring the team's infield needs; in fact, "settle" might not be the most appropriate word because I'm not at all convinced that Duensing will be an inferior pitcher to the 35-year-old Washburn in 2010.
I reference that comment not to gloat, but to make a simple point. When evaluating these rumors, beyond thinking about the credibility of the source, it is important to employ basic logic. In his article Miller suggested that the Twins' one-year offer to Washburn was likely for around $6 million. It has been discussed exhaustively here and in other spaces how tight the Twins are financially at this point; would it really make sense for them to spend that much money on a No. 5 starter, regardless of how much interest they've had in him in the past?

It is very possible that the Twins could end up signing Washburn. But many people are acting like it's already happened, and expending a lot of needless frustration. When you catch wind of these confounding rumors, take into account the source and actual likelihood of it before letting them ruin your day. It will prevent a lot of unnecessary stress.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Same Old Story

We've heard it all before. Ron Gardenhire says he's receiving reports that Francisco Liriano is "throwing the living fire out of the ball" down in the Domincan Winter League, adding that the left-hander's fastball has been clocked at 92-94 MPH and describing his slider as "filthy." Even as one of Liriano's most stubbornly adamant supporters, I've come to roll my eyes at reports like this by now.

Sure, the DWL statistics (21.2 IP, 0.83 ERA, 27/4 K/BB) support the notion that Liriano is throwing well. Yet, we heard similarly strong reports as Liriano initially worked back from Tommy John surgery prior to the 2008 season, and nevertheless the former phenom came out flat that April. Additionally, there were numerous occasions last year where Twins' coaches would rave about how sharp Liriano looked in his bullpen sessions only to see him come out and struggle mightily on game day.

Liriano, it seems, has become the king of the bullpen session and simulated game. The potential for him to transfer that ability onto the field is a big reason I remain in his corner, but after seeing his extreme inconsistency over the past two seasons, it's tough to build up much confidence in spite of the glowing reports from the Dominican league.

Indeed, the Twins hardly seem convinced that Liriano is the answer for the fifth spot in their rotation, as there are reports that the team has made an offer to veteran lefty Jarrod Washburn to fill that role. This seems pretty illogical to me, given the team's stretched budget and the existence of palatable options even if Liriano once again fails to bring his successful results north. For instance, I'd rather settle for Brian Duensing in the fifth spot than spend several million dollars on Washburn while ignoring the team's infield needs; in fact, "settle" might not be the most appropriate word because I'm not at all convinced that Duensing will be an inferior pitcher to the 35-year-old Washburn in 2010.

Of course, the ideal scenario would be for Liriano to return to the Twins with renewed confidence this spring after a strong showing in winter ball and lock up a spot in the rotation. Liriano's biggest issue last year was a lack of fastball command, so I don't really get too hyped up about the reports surrounding improved velocity (and considering his fastball averaged 91.7 MPH last year, it's not like 92 MPHwould be a particularly significant step up). The fact that he's been limiting walks this winter, though, is far more encouraging, and if that's a trend he can bring back to Minnesota with him then there will be plenty of reason for legitimate optimism.

For now, though, I'm going to stick to a wait-and-see approach. I've been burned too many times already.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

State of the Bullpen

Last week I examined the state of the Twins' starting rotation as we move forward into the new year. Today's post will break down the relief corps.

Early on last season, it appeared that the bullpen would be one of the Twins' greatest downfalls. Arm injuries to Pat Neshek and Boof Bonser had shelved two of the team's most appealing late-inning options for the year, and the team's offseason acquisition aimed at replacing the production of these two -- Luis Ayala -- was looking like an uninspiring option at best as he struggled early on. Meanwhile, Craig Breslow, who'd been one of the team's most reliable relievers in '08, found himself waived in the middle of May after the team grew tired of his inability to put the ball over the plate.

Ultimately, though, the Twins' bullpen settled in and by the end of the year it was actually one of the league's stronger units, finishing fourth in the AL in ERA. It appears that Bill Smith will do little if anything to augment the relief corps this offseason, so by the time spring training rolls around, narrowing down the bullpen will likely be a matter of sorting through the various internal options and settling on the six or seven best candidates.

In looking ahead to the Twins bullpen for the 2010 season, there are some reasons for optimism and also some reasons for serious concern.

The greatest reason for optimism, of course, is the expected return of Neshek. The right-handed setup man missed much of the 2008 season and all of the 2009 season after suffering an elbow injury that ultimately required Tommy John surgery, but by all accounts he is on track to be at full strength in time for the start of the upcoming campaign. Now, being at full strength doesn't necessarily equate to being at full effectiveness; Neshek has missed a substantial amount of time so a return to his previous form could take some time and very realistically might not happen at all. His obscure delivery, which seemingly puts additional strain on the elbow, further complicates matters. If the effects of Neshek's injury cause him to become timid in his delivery or cause him to alter his approach entirely, he'll likely need additional time to get comfortable and gain full command of his pitches.

With all that being said, anyone who watched the team during the 2006 and 2007 seasons know what a crucial contributor Neshek can be in the back end of the bullpen and he's had plenty of time to recovery from surgery. So while he shouldn't necessarily be counted on, especially early in the year, there's plenty of reason to hope he can be a useful piece for the Twins in 2010.

Looking beyond Neshek, there are a couple other hurlers who might be able to provide additional help for the Twins bullpen in the upcoming season even if Smith continues to leave that area unaddressed. Anthony Slama and Rob Delaney, two of the organization's most accomplished minor league relievers, both finished the '09 season in Triple-A, so both will be poised to step in at the major-league level at any time this year. They might even be able to compete for jobs in spring training. If either of these historically dominant right-handers -- Slama in particular -- can carry his outstanding minor-league performance to the big stage, they could serve as a serious boon to a bullpen that is currently lacking in power arms.

Yet, despite the solid potential for reinforcements, there are plenty of reasons to be worried about the bullpen as we look forward. Unlike others, I'm not particularly concerned about Joe Nathan. I think the cries of despair regarding his late-season struggles were hugely overblown; it's not remotely uncommon for hard-throwing relievers to wear down a bit late in the season and Nathan was just one of many elite closers who melted down in the October last year.

I am, however, somewhat concerned about the two men who spent much of the season setting Nathan up. Jose Mijares and Matt Guerrier were both exceptional overall last year, but a closer inspection of their underlying numbers and trends leads me to wonder whether they'll be able to replicate those performances as we move forward.

Mijares saw his strong rookie campaign come to a rather discouraging close. Even beyond the well publicized drubbing he took in the clubhouse after losing his temper and causing teammate Delmon Young to get beaned in a late-season game, Mijares looked downright hittable and seemed to lack confidence on the field as the year came to a close. Moreover, his manager displayed decreased confidence in him. Ron Gardenhire showed a very quick hook with Mijares as the season winded down, allowing him to record two or fewer outs in each of his final seven appearances (Mijares had recorded at least three outs in 63 percent of his appearances prior) and the lefty was removed before recording a single out in both of his final two regular season appearances. Similarly, Mijares struggled in the postseason, yielding a key home run in Game 2 against the Yankees and walking the only batter he faced in Game 3.

There's no arguing with Mijares' overall results last year -- a 2.34 ERA and 1.18 WHIP are outstanding numbers for a 24-year-old rookie -- but he finished the season with a clear lack of confidence and that could be a problem if it carries forward into next year, particularly considering his historical problems with control (both on and off the field).

Guerrier, meanwhile, possesses his own set of question marks. The righty bounced back brilliantly from a disastrous 2008 season by posting a 2.36 ERA and 0.97 WHIP while serving as one of the league's most reliable setup men. Yet, the same concerns continue to exist surrounding his extreme usage. Guerrier led the AL in relief appearances for a second straight season last year, and while the heavy usage didn't produce the same clear negative late-season effects that it has in the past, he did cough up three homers in his final six appearances of the regular season and one wonders how his arm will hold up in the coming campaign. On top of that, Guerrier's outstanding numbers last year were buoyed by a .214 batting average on balls in play. His career average in that category is .273 and his previous career low was .250, so once his luck inevitably starts to even out it could lead to significant regression.

In general, the bullpen picture is unclear at this point. We know that, barring injury, Nathan, Guerrier, Mijares, Jon Rauch and Jesse Crain will be there. The remaining spot(s) will be up for grabs among a group that is likely to include Slama, Delaney, Bobby Keppel and whatever starters miss out on a rotation spot. All in all, that seems like a group with pretty solid upside, but with very real potential to struggle.