Jim Souhan: Twins' relief situation will work itself out

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 23, 2011 - 12:02 AM

"What are the Twins going to do about their bullpen?" They will have faith that someone steps up, as someone always has.

Matt Capps

Photo: Jim Mone, Associated Press

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I would like to congratulate the Minnesota Twins.

Not for the success of Target Field, or winning another division title. That, as Denny Green once said of a game that had just ended, is yesterday's news.

No, I'd like to congratulate the Twins for spoiling their fans the way Hugh Hefner spoils pretty blondes.

Every conversation with a Twins fan I've had in the last three weeks has begun with a pained expression and the question: "What are the Twins going to do about their bullpen?"

That's logical, because the Twins have few other holes on their roster. But it's logical in the way that it's logical for a man with a Bentley to worry about a rust spot on his back bumper.

This is the "Princess and the Pea," with Twins fans playing the princesses and Pat Neshek's right elbow starring as the tiny irritant.

If you're a baseball fan and by late January your greatest concern is the identity of the pitcher who will enter the game in the seventh inning, you are living well.

Perhaps it's time to stop comparing our new-age Twins to the minor leaguers who stumbled around the Metrodome -- remember that place? -- in the mid-to-late 1990s, but for some of us there isn't enough laser surgery in the world to remove the scars.

In those dark days, a talented young lefty such as Glen Perkins would have had a chance to become the No. 2 or 3 starter, and a talented young reliever such as Neshek, if he regains his health and velocity, would have had a chance to be a setup man.

The 2011 Twins will enter spring training with a willingness to consider Perkins and Neshek for the No. 4 and 5 spots in their bullpen, but only if they look sharp in March.

Perkins and Neshek will compete with Jeff Manship, Alex Burnett, Anthony Slama, Rob Delaney, Carlos Gutierrez, Scott Diamond, Chuck James and Jim Hoey for roster spots, and the bullpen could also feature one of the Twins' current starters as a long reliever.

That would leave just two openings on the pitching staff, and a handful of interesting candidates. It would also give the Twins the ability to trade a starter -- perhaps Kevin Slowey -- for a bullpen arm or prospects, and to reduce a payroll that was inflated to make the Carl Pavano signing possible.

If the Twins are going to set any spending limits -- and they have already spent about $115 million on this roster, a club record -- it makes sense to save money on middle relievers. They are the most unpredictable of baseball players, and the easiest to replace.

Look at the most successful Twins relievers of recent vintage: Eddie Guardado was a failed starter. LaTroy Hawkins was, statistically, one of the worst pitchers in baseball history before Rick Anderson fixed him before the 2002 season. Rick Aguilera was found lacking by the Mets before the Twins traded for him. Joe Nathan was an injury-prone former shortstop for the Giants. Matt Guerrier was claimed off waivers, making the Twins his third organization.

The 2011 Twins will wind up spending more than $20 million on relievers. They have two All-Star closers in Matt Capps and the convalescing Nathan. They have a dynamic lefty in Jose Mijares. And they have an ownership and management team that has proved willing to trade for arms during the season if necessary.

"I feel all right about our bullpen," said Rob Antony, the Twins assistant general manager. "I think we have a lot of alternatives, and we're in a position where some guys have an opportunity to step up and earn jobs.

"The key to any bullpen is the back end, and we have a strong back end with Capps and Nathan. We can't have high-priced talent at every position. We're not the Yankees. We've put money into trying to keep our best players, our core players, and now we're going to have to fill in with some guys in middle relief.

"We're not concerned. If anything, we're curious, to see which of these guys is going to earn a job. You know, if we hadn't had any openings, Matt Guerrier never would have gotten a chance to make himself into a really good pitcher for us."

The Twins re-signed their two most important free agents, in Pavano and Jim Thome. They outbid the rest of baseball for Japanese shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka (oh, if only Bob Casey were here to introduce him). They will start paying Joe Mauer $23 million a year this season.

Lacking certainty in middle relief is not a crisis. It's simply the most obvious irritant on the richest roster in Twins history.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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