As Twins fans, we've come to realize a painful tendency these past couple of years that previously we had been blissfully unaware of. In baseball, I would argue that there's nothing more deflating or devastating than a blown save; to take that a step further, losing a game because of a shoddy pitching job in the bullpen is just flat out unacceptable.
Under the guidance of Rick Stelmaszek and Rick Anderson, the Twins bullpen was dominant since our team's resurgence from obscurity in the early part of this past decade. Thanks in large part to name like Eddie Guardado, Juan Rincon, JC Romero, Grant Balfour, and several other since-departed Twins.
One of the things I think we all took for granted was being able to see our name consistently up there with the Los Angeles Angeles as having one of the best records in baseball when ahead after 7 innings.
Several other bloggers have pointed out that the Twins pitching woes this past year are perhaps mistakenly put on the shoulders of our rotation. I'm not quite sure that's the case -- they weren't particularly worse than they've been in the past (with the notable exception of not having Santana of course), but our bullpen offered absolutely no relief -- no pun intended -- and our starters were naturally forced to go longer and perhaps face more trouble than previously accustomed.
That changes this year.
Beginning in August and September we saw the bullpen begin to turn a corner, and we have every reason to expect that this trend should continue, which in itself will be a huge boon to our rotation and to our collective heartbeats as the game gets into later innings.
Obviously there's our star:
Joe Nathan is about as good as they come. At the end of the season I think everyone was cringing when they saw him come in, but we can't put all the failure on his shoulders. Those were some heartbreaking losses, but for every blown save he had at least 10 times where he was a rockstar. First off, late inning save situations are naturally tense. And Nathan's tweaks and quirks and twitches are a little scary to watch too. But for 95% of the games he's put in, he'll dominate. He deserves the benefit of the doubt as a model of consistency.
Mijares & Guerrier are at the very least league-average relievers, and when they're on point they're much better. Mijares is a power arm from the leftside with the ability to make batters look silly. He has a bad tendency of pitching off the plate and letting batters coax favorable counts against him before either ultimately walking them or coming back with a piece of cheese that gets lifted into the seats. But those bad moments are the ones that stick out, and numbers don't lie: 2.34 ERA and 1.056 WHIP and a 60-23 K-BB ratio in 2009 is not something to scoff at. Guerrier is almost the opposite of Mijares. Guerrier relies less on power than control and guile. This past year his numbers look a little flukey, and so I was an advocate for trading him (and still am because I think his value will never be higher), but he's also been a model of consistency, as shown by the fact that he is always one of the league leaders in appearances out of the bullpen. That's actually one of the biggest fears: that he's so consistent that he'll be overused. No complaints from me if that's the worst thing I can say about him.
Jon Rauch is the kind of pitcher that I'm sure has batters quivering at the plate. He looks like he's either going to hit you in the face with a baseball or a beer bottle, and neither would be pleasant. Down the stretch he was one of the most clutch performers out of our 'pen, and if he has a good supporting cast around him he'll be able to keep slinging at full strength right into October. A big guy like that is a good asset on the mound (and he's not even the biggest guy in our system...)
Pat Neshek is unbelievably awesome. Not only is his delivery one of the coolest things to watch, but the fact that no one can seem to touch him makes it even better. The biggest question mark here is how effective he'll be coming back from injury. We should know this pretty quickly in spring training, but the thought is that sometime during the season he'll be able to step in and provide that electric spark that made him so nasty in his debut. I think we all know he can do that, the only question is how soon.
Clay Condrey makes Bobby Keppel look like the career minor leaguer we know he should be. One of the biggest concerns last year for me is how long we stuck with him when his sinker stopped sinking -- it seemed like he was holding blackmail over Gardy and Smith that allowed him a permanent place on the active roster. This year, that's changed. (What is a Ham Fighter?) Condrey was a key piece of the Phillies bullpen during the regular season, and I can't explain why he didn't see the light of day during the postseason, but it speaks more to the Phillies' depth than anything bad about Condrey. The one thing here is that we shouldn't expect him to come in and be the next Joe Nathan, but he's at least league average and should be a much better mop-up guy and able to keep the games from getting out of hand, which is more than I could say for Keppel.
Jesse Crain is a guy that everyone loves to hate this offseason. I think that's more in part for the fact that he struggled at the beginning of the season and kept getting trotted out there. Thankfully the Twins wised up and let him fix things in the minors, and in the second half of the season he was amazing. He had a 2.91 ERA, 1.206 WHIP, and a 30-15 K-BB ratio and he generally seemed a lot more confident. The biggest problem is that we're paying through the nose for him, but that's more the fact that we signed him to a stupid contract than that he's a bad pitcher. If he's the weakest link in our pen, it's a pretty strong pen.
Other options? We have plenty. The Duensing/Perkins/Liriano/Manship/Swarzak 5-headed monster will undoubtedly see some time in the 'pen, and it's not because they can't cut it in a rotation but just because we have too many people logjamming! This in fact makes it hard for some of our best prospects, who are currently idling away in Rochester and will sadly probably start the year back there. The one that I'd like to see break camp with the Twins but fully expect to be a fresh, lights-out, sparkplug down the stretch: Anthony Slama.
He was named the Twins minor league pitcher of the year in '08 when he dominated the FSL with Fort Meyers. He had a 1.01 ERA with a 0.944 WHIP and a 110-24 K-BB ratio. He's calmed down a little bit since then but still continues to be the best option out of the pen in each stop that he makes in our system.
In summary? Despite getting rid of Boof Bonser and not retaining Keppel or Mahay, the Twins will have a plethora of serviceable arms to stock our pen. And if anyone is ineffective or gets injured, there should be plenty of options to remedy the situation with. Not only will this shore up what's been an Achilles heel for the Twins the past couple of years, but it will undoubtedly make our rotation better as they'll be able to hand off the ball with more confidence.
This is our bullpen's return to dominance. And it's been much needed.