The Minnesota Twins bullpen is terrible!
And I’m the positive Twins blogger. It’s just hard to sugar coat it at this point. On Monday night, Matt Capps blew another save. Joe Nathan couldn’t get through the 8th inning. Kevin Slowey won’t pitch. Phil Dumatrait, Dusty Hughes and Anthony Swarzak have all been promoted from Rochester in the last week. Their best performer this spring, Glen Perkins, had to go on the Disabled List over the weekend. It has been one thing after the next, but at the end of the day, the Twins have a bullpen that has not performed this year.
That isn’t to say they are entirely at fault. The defense behind them has failed them at times, either with errors or with plays that have to be made but aren’t.
So what went wrong?
Throughout the offseason, the bullpen was one of the biggest areas of concern (along with the middle infield) for the Twins and their fans. Locked into $12.5 million this year for Joe Nathan, and signing his insurance policy (Capps) for $7.15 million, the Twins likely did not want to spend more money on the bullpen. They lost long-time Twins contributors Jesse Crain (White Sox – 2.45 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, with 23 K in 22 innings) and Matt Guerrier (Dodgers – 3.42 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, with 19 K in 23.2 innings) to three year deals at $4 million or more per year. Jon Rauch signed late with the Blue Jays (4.00 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 9 K in 18 innings). Brian Fuentes signed a two-year deal with the A’s (4.71 ERA ,1.38 WHIP, 15 strikeouts in 21 innings). Ron Mahay and Randy Flores have signed a series of minor league deals.
Of those six pitchers, I was only disappointed in the Twins losing Crain, especially since he went to the White Sox, but primarily because he seemed to find it last year. Don’t forget that on this date one year ago, Twins fans (myself included) were calling for the Twins to Designate Crain for Assignment and move on. From this point on a year ago, he was as good as any bullpen pitcher in baseball.
I was reading Texas Rangers’ blogger/writer Jamey Newberg’s Newberg Report over the weekend. He wrote about bullpen construction. It contained tidbits such as:
The Tampa Bay Rays had the best bullpen in the American League in 2010 by some measures, leading the league in opponents’ batting average (.228) and ERA (3.33) and WHIP (1.17) and K/BB (2.61) and fewest walks (150) and save percentage (76 percent).

They have one of the league’s best pens again in 2011, leading the league comfortably in save percentage (82 percent) and sitting top five in nearly every other category.

So what?

Tampa Bay’s top six relievers last year, in terms of appearances, were Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, Lance Cormier, and Randy Choate.

The Rays’ top six relievers this year are Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, Juan Cruz, Cesar Ramos, Adam Russell, and Jake McGee.

Soriano and Benoit and Balfour and Wheeler left for big free agency deals. Cormier and Choate left for smaller ones.

The Rays were left to rebuild their bullpen, basically from scratch. They brought in Farnsworth and Peralta on reasonable free agent deals, Cruz on a minor league contract, and Ramos and Russell from San Diego in the Jason Bartlett trade, while graduating McGee from their farm system (he’s since been optioned to get things straightened out).

They’re paying those six relievers a combined $5.6 million in 2011. That’s about what Detroit is paying Benoit alone this year (the first of three guaranteed seasons) – for what is now a 7.47 ERA – and a little more than half of the $10 million Soriano will get from the Yankees this year (a number that jumps in 2012 and again in 2013) while regularly committing arson.

The point is that bullpens can be overhauled, can be done so effectively, and can be done so inexpensively.
Clearly it isn’t about spending money on big name free agent relief pitchers. Multi-year, big dollar free agent relievers rarely work out. The Rays took advantage of big seasons by Benoit, Soriano and Balfour and turned them into extra draft picks in 2011 and then signed some free agent relievers very late in the Hot Stove League.
The Rays’ bullpen’s questions were even bigger than the Twins bullpen questions heading into spring training. The Twins decided to give opportunities to younger pitchers from their own system (Burnett, Manship, Perkins , etc.) along with some recent acquisitions (Hughes, Hoey, etc.) The Rays brought in some veterans on cheap deals and complemented them with young pitchers from trades.
As Twins blogger Aaron Gleeman wrote yesterday, “At this point the seven-man bullpen consists of one mediocre closer, one formerly great closer coming back from elbow surgery, one mid-rotation starter not well suited for relieving, and four guys who should be at Triple-A.”
For me, my opinion was always that Capps would be solid and good insurance for Joe Nathan. I said that anything they got from Joe Nathan this year would be a bonus. I expected Jose Mijares to be very solid. After that, I figured that the Twins would have so many options and only need three or maybe four of them to pan out.  I have to assume that the Twins brass assumed that as well.
Matt Capps. Joe Nathan. Glen Perkins. Jose Mijares. Alex Burnett. Kevin Slowey. Dusty Hughes. Jim Hoey. Anthony Swarzak. Eric Hacker. Jeff Manship. Phil Dumatrait.
Raise your hand if you thought that, coming into the spring, Glen Perkins would be the one name in that group who has met or exceeded expectations.
  • How Chuck James has not yet received a promotion is beyond me. The former Braves lefty is now 1-1 with a 1.63 ERA and a 0.94 WHIP in 27.2 innings. He has nine walks and 36 strikeouts.
  • Former first-round pick Carlos Gutierrez is close too. He is 2-2 with a 2.48 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP. In 29 innings, he walked 13 and struck out 19. Opponents are hitting just .198 against him. His time has to be coming near.
  • Anthony Slama missed most of spring training with an arm injury. He is now 2-1 with a 3.80 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP. In 21.1 innings, he has 10 walks and 20 strikeouts. He probably would have been on the Opening Day roster if not for the injury and at some point (probably very soon!) he will be with the Twins again.
  • Kyle Waldrop is another guy who has not yet been in the Twins bullpen revolving door yet. He is 1-3 with a 5.47 ERA and a 1.62 ERA. In the last week, he has figured out some mechanical issues and is pitching great again after a strong spring showing.
And now, I have named 16 bullpen options for the Twins. They need six of them to pitch well. Finding two or three of them to pitch well at the same time has been a huge struggle so far this season.
So what is the answer in retrospect? It is pretty clear that signing big-money, long-term contracts with relievers makes little sense and rarely works out well.  
Imagine if the Twins had signed the likes of Kyle Farnsworth, Juan Cruz and Joel Peralta this offseason. They would have been called cheap. They would have been accused of stunting the growth of their younger relievers.
The Twins bullpen has been a source of frustration, to be sure. The manager has only so many options to throw out there. The blame goes primarily to the pitchers themselves (and often their defense). The front office has taken the brunt of the blame, and deservedly so. It’s hard for me to place much blame on them because I would have run with the same strategy in the offseason if I was GM, with one exception. I wanted to pick up just one more veteran bullpen arm. My choice this offseason was Jose Veras who was non-tendered by the Florida Marlins and later signed as a minor league free agent with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Twins have had a lot of pride in their bullpen over most of the last decade, most of their winning years. They have generally been able to hope the starter gets through six innings and if they had a lead, the bullpen could finish the job. At this point, the job seems to transition from finding the best bullpen to finding out what they have in certain relievers to determine who will fill the role in 2012. Are guys like Slama, Swarzak, Burnett and Gutierrez guys that the Twins can count on next year? I think we will have the opportunity to find out together.
They might as well because right now, the Twins bullpen is really bad.