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Twins General Manager Terry Ryan won't always make the flashy moves, but he usually makes solid ones.

Richard Marshall, Associated Press

Christensen: Righthanded reliever remains on Twins' to-do list

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN
  • Star Tribune
  • January 6, 2012 - 7:26 AM

Three months from Friday, the Twins will open a new season at Baltimore's Camden Yards, and on the 20th anniversary of that ballpark's opening, the warehouse windows in right field should be safe.

Lefthanded hitters take aim at that warehouse with each swing, but the patchwork relief corps the Twins are assembling has decent numbers against lefties.

It's the righties that should worry them.

Here are nine of the Twins' internal bullpen candidates and the batting averages righthanded hitters posted against them last year: Matt Capps (.260), Glen Perkins (.259), Brian Duensing (.330), Alex Burnett (.264), Lester Oliveros (.292), Anthony Swarzak (.301), Esmerling Vasquez (.254), Jeff Gray (.280) and Kyle Waldrop (.360).

Six weeks before pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers, Fla., it seems inevitable the Twins will add at least one established righthanded reliever. Don't expect a big splash, but rather a move that mirrors what General Manager Terry Ryan has done all offseason, addressing needs with solid, if unspectacular, replacements.

Jamey Carroll is a slap hitter whose range is fading, but at age 38, he should help stem the middle-infield chaos from last year. Ryan Doumit is suspect defensively, even at catcher, but when healthy, he can hit.

A lineup, which looks increasingly punchless after the departures of Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, will welcome Josh Willingham, coming off a 29-homer season for Oakland. And Jason Marquis should bring decent value to the rotation as an innings eater, at $3 million.

To do all this while streamlining the payroll has been admirable and typical Ryan. But to leave the current bullpen mess unattended would be inexcusable, especially for him. Twins relievers posted the worst ERA in the majors last season, at 4.51, and their all-time saves leader, Joe Nathan, has bolted for Texas.

Capps is back (pause here for applause to fade), and if the other starting pitchers are healthy, the Marquis signing should enable the Twins to move Duensing back to the bullpen.

But the Twins usually carry seven relievers. They shouldn't head to Florida with at least four bullpen spots up for grabs. Teams can usually count on one or two spring training surprises, but not four from the same specialty group.

The Twins have signed some interesting minor league free agents. Jason Bulger was a dominant reliever for the Angels in 2009 and held righties to a .182 average last year at Class AAA Salt Lake City. Jared Burton was a key member of the Reds bullpen from 2007 to '09. Rule 5 draft pick Terry Doyle could emerge as a long reliever with upside. And maybe University of Miami closer Carlos Gutierrez finally will show why the Twins made him the 27th overall pick in the 2008 draft.

But it's one thing to dominate Grapefruit League games and another to dominate in the regular season as a top righthanded setup man must. Signing one veteran would reduce the pressure these other pitchers face on April 6 in Baltimore.

Fernando Rodney, who held righties to a .180 batting average last year, just signed a one-year, $2 million deal with Tampa Bay. Among the remaining free agent options are Chad Qualls (.218), Scott Linebrink (.268), Todd Coffey (.193), Juan Cruz (.238), Shawn Camp (.263) and Michael Wuertz (.310).

Ryan has said he would like to keep the Opening Day payroll close to $100 million, down from $113 million last year. The current projection is about $98 million, and it's worth noting that the Twins don't count the $2 million buyout they gave Nathan in this number. Apparently, that goes on last year's books.

It's also worth remembering that Opening Day is only a starting point. If Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Denard Span, Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano are healthy and flourishing, and this team gets off to a strong start, the Pohlads surely would green-light Ryan to add payroll with midseason moves.

Even now, there's wiggle room.

"There's enough [payroll] flexibility where I certainly can discuss it with ownership and with [team President Dave St. Peter]," Ryan said. "You never close any door. There may be a person out there that ultimately doesn't have a place to land that might think this is a good chance for him. So don't think that we're done."

A righthanded reliever could be the final piece. The puzzle won't look perfect then, but coming off a 63-99 finish, Ryan's budget-conscious moves should put the Twins back in the right direction.

Joe Christensen • jchristensen@startribune.com

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