Committing To The In-House Options

Although he first mentioned it earlier in the offseason, recently Bill Smith reiterated that he is content with the in-house options the Twins currently possess for the bullpen. This has made many fans concerned, and to some extent rightly so. Going into the offseason, I was sure that the Twins would attempt to re-sign at least one reliever out of the quartet of Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes, and Jon Rauch. However, we’ve now seen all four of them find new homes in Los Angeles, Chicago, Oakland, and Toronto, respectively. Looking at their contracts, it’s possible the Twins made the right decision in letting them all walk, especially if you consider that signing any one of them may have prevented the Twins from bringing back Jim Thome, and they were already committing nearly $20 million just to Joe Nathan and Matt Capps. I’m going to explain why the bullpen could be better off than we may think.

Park Effects

First, I want us to consider the team with one of the unfriendliest ballparks to offense in the major leagues, and that is San Diego. Take a look at these names, and pick out the ones that you’re familiar with: Heath Bell, Mike Adams, Joe Thatcher, Ryan Webb, Luke Gregerson, Tim Stauffer, Ernesto Frieri, and Edward Mujica. For the “slightly more than casual” fan, you’d probably pick out Bell and maybe Adams.

These eight guys were the main occupants of the Padres bullpen last season (minimum 30 innings), and they all have some interesting things to note. All of them had an FIP below 4 (all except Mujica below 3.00), and just as impressive, five of them had an ERA under 2. All except Webb had a significantly above-average strikeout rate, and all except Frieri had a league average or better walk rate. Not too shabby for a group that has only one household reliever name.

I will admit that Target Field is not the same as Petco Park, but it did do a fair job in suppressing offense last season, most notably home runs. If the death of home runs continues, the park could help turn some middling pitchers into pretty decent relievers.

Diamonds in the Rough

This can relate to the fallacy of keeping Matt Capps around simply because he’s a closer. A common belief is that you need a good pitcher in order to get good results, but this often means paying money to get those results instead of gambling that you can find cheaper options. That’s precisely what the Twins are doing this year. Instead of paying for any one of Crain, Guerrier, Fuentes, and Rauch, the front office is gambling that the in-house options will give similar productivity for a fraction of the cost.

Remember the A.J. Pierzynski trade? Of course you do, because the Twins received Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser.* But do you remember what Joe Nathan was doing before he became the Twins closer? The year before the trade, he was a middle reliever for the San Francisco Giants. He went 12-4 with a 2.96 ERA (3.45 FIP) in 78 relief appearances in 2003. The next season, he saved 44 games for the Twins with a 1.62 ERA (2.16 FIP).

* On a side note, the trade seems so lopsided now, but if you go back to when it was first made, you can understand the Giants’ thinking. They were receiving a pretty good catcher in Pierzynski, and all they had to give up was a middle reliever (Nathan), a decent prospect (Bonser), and a good prospect with an injury history (Liriano).

Another example is Matt Guerrier. He was originally a starter and then became a long reliever for the Twins. Once he demonstrated that he was much better than your typical long reliever, the Twins gradually gave him higher leverage roles until he eventually became the setup man for Nathan. Similar stories involve LaTroy Hawkins and Eddie Guardado, where both were failed starters that became good relievers.

This year, the Twins are hoping the same from Jeff Manship and Glen Perkins. I ridiculed Bill Smith a bit when he first said that he was expecting Jeff Manship to step into Matt Guerrier’s shoes, but Smith was serious and I actually believe he’s right. Looking at the career numbers of these two players…

Matt Guerrier: 3.38 ERA, 4.44 FIP, 5.91 K/9, 2.80 BB/9, 1.11 HR/9, 1.24 WHIP

Jeff Manship: 5.49 ERA, 4.29 FIP, 6.23 K/9, 3.12 BB/9, 1.04 HR/9, 1.55 WHIP

…we see two similar players if we ignore the ERA and WHIP, though the disparities can be explained by Guerrier having a little more luck in stranding baserunners (78.8% to Manship’s 63.4%) and getting batters to hit the ball right at fielders (.272 BABIP to Manship’s .338). When these numbers start to regress to the mean for Manship, he could very well end up with a sub-4 ERA just like Guerrier.

Trust What You’ve Got

Finally, we look specifically at the guys the Twins are likely putting into the bullpen. Some people were turned off by Anthony Slama’s poor major league debut, especially after his dominance through the minor leagues, but we shouldn’t let 4 2/3 innings in The Show to overshadow his over 200 innings pitched in the minors. Rob Delaney hasn’t put up a good ERA in his past two seasons at Rochester, but his peripheral stats suggested he should have had an ERA under 4 those two years. There’s also Alex Burnett and potentially Kyle Waldrop and Carlos Gutierrez that could come up from the minor leagues.

Scott Diamond was plucked from the Braves in the Rule 5 draft, and he’ll likely compete with Glen Perkins to be the second lefthander behind Jose Mijares. While I don’t see him making the roster (Rule 5 picks seem to rarely stick on the active roster for the whole season), his ability to get ground balls could make him a Dennys Reyes (Twins version) with good control.

Finally, we have the guys that have major league experience and could have some nice rebound years. Glen Perkins hasn’t been able to handle lefthanded hitters so far, but his return to the bullpen last year coincided with a jump in fastball velocity from 89.7 MPH to 92 MPH. The extra oomph may be able to help him fix his problems, and at worst he would just become a long reliever in the bullpen. Pat Neshek has another year under his belt after Tommy John surgery, and hopefully he’ll be able to get his fastball back up in the high-80s. Plus, there’s the biggest wild card of all in Joe Nathan. If he’s able to return to his pre-Tommy John dominance, he could reclaim the closer role from Matt Capps in no time.

At worst, I see the Twins having a league average bullpen for the 2011 season. People will likely complain simply because it won’t be as good as in years past, but they will be just fine. There’s no way they will be as bad as the 2010 Arizona Diamondbacks bullpen (5.74 ERA), that’s for sure. It’s not like the Twins are stocking the bullpen with 5 Anthony Swarzaks, after all.

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