Part 2: Twins' bullpen blues

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 8, 2011 - 2:06 PM

Second of a four-part series: The tried-and-true method of replacing relievers by doing it on the cheap has been a failure, going from one of the best pens to the worst.

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Twins reliever Joe Nathan

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The series examines how the Twins have gone from a team that won six division titles in nine seasons to one that is on pace to lose 100 games. The lineup:

Sunday: Joe Mauer's nagging injuries and his hefty $23 million annual salary.

TODAY: The failed blueprint for the bullpen.

Tuesday: The mess in the middle of the infield.

Wednesday: Disappearance of the "Twins Way."

KANSAS CITY, MO. - The Twins have the worst bullpen in Major League Baseball, and it's no coincidence they have the game's worst record, too.

Over the past five years, the average record for the team with MLB's worst bullpen is 66-96.

After years of boasting one of the game's best relief corps, the Twins knew they would have challenges this year after losing four late-inning specialists to free agency: Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes.

"I don't think anybody ever said the bullpen was the least of our concerns," General Manager Bill Smith said.

Still, there was an organizational hubris that the bullpen would be OK. Throughout the winter, the Twins talked about how they had replaced other key relievers in recent years -- Eddie Guardado, LaTroy Hawkins, Juan Rincon, etc. -- and still maintained their run of six division titles in nine years.

But they tried remaking their bullpen on the cheap again, using in-house candidates and minor league acquisitions.

The experiment has blown up in their faces. The Twins bullpen is 4-13 and ranks 30th among 30 MLB teams in ERA at 5.22.

Last year, the Twins were 72-7 in games they led after the seventh inning. This year, they are 16-8 in these games, so they already have experienced more of those gut-wrenching losses with 65 percent of the season still to play.

When Alex Burnett, Dusty Hughes and Jim Hoey turned a 5-0 eighth-inning lead into a 6-5 loss to the Angels on May 27, manager Ron Gardenhire spent his postgame news conference harping on baserunning mistakes. He almost seemed numb to his relievers' repeated failures.

"That's who we have [in the bullpen]," he said. "That's who we are. That's who has to pitch."

But he and pitching coach Rick Anderson have looked bewildered at times, trying to navigate the late innings. Between 2005 and 2010, the Twins ranked in MLB's top 10 in bullpen ERA every year. The relievers usually had clearly defined roles, and Gardenhire won a lot of games with push-button managing.

Anderson is among the most respected pitching coaches in the game. He says it's his job to get his relievers to pitch better. But he's not a miracle worker. In a year of mind-boggling injuries for the Twins, their bullpen remains an Achilles' heel.

Cost-cutting choices

The Twins never have been big players in free agency, especially for bullpen help. Last winter, the Yankees gave Rafael Soriano a three-year, $35 million contract to be a setup man for Mariano Rivera. It was an expensive mistake. Soriano had a 5.40 ERA before going on the DL because of elbow soreness.

Likewise, the Tigers gave Joaquin Benoit a three-year, $16.5 million deal, and watched his ERA swell to 7.98 before he found his groove in mid-May.

Benoit's deal set the market for Crain and Guerrier. The Twins were mostly bystanders as Crain, 29, signed his three-year, $13 million deal with the White Sox, and Guerrier, 32, signed his three-year, $12 million deal with the Dodgers. This season, Crain is 2-2 with a 3.16 ERA, and Guerrier is 2-3 with a 3.03 ERA.

The Twins are among the teams opposed to giving relievers three-year deals because it's so hard for relievers to maintain consistency, making 70 or more appearances per season.

Fuentes, 35, who signed a two-year, $12.5 million deal with Oakland, is 1-7 with a 4.05 ERA.

Rauch, 32, might have been a keeper if his personality hadn't grated on the Twins. He signed a one-year, $3.75 million deal with Toronto and is 2-2 with a 3.80 ERA.

In hindsight, the Twins probably should have re-signed Rauch or tried to pluck at least one other reliever from the free-agent bargain bin. That's where Tampa Bay found Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta, and where Washington found Todd Coffey.

But the Twins had payroll issues, especially with Joe Mauer's salary climbing to $23 million.

When the Twins re-signed Carl Pavano to his two-year, $16.5 million deal, they insisted they were over budget with a $113 million payroll.

They already had traded J.J. Hardy and Brendan Harris to the Orioles in what was basically a salary dump. The two relievers they received in return -- Hoey and Class AA righthander Brett Jacobson -- both have trouble throwing strikes.

The Twins could have let Pavano leave and spent his $8 million salary on relief help. He won 17 games and logged 221 innings last year, but he is 35 now and is only 3-5 with a 4.83 ERA.

Bullpen pains

Another option would have been trading Kevin Slowey for a reliever. With Pavano back, the Twins had six starters for five spots, but they hoped Slowey would help them in the bullpen. Slowey has had two stints as a reliever this year and wound up on the DL both times.

Last year, the average major league team used nine starting pitchers. The Twins used seven. They overstocked themselves with starting pitching, even though they knew another starter, Kyle Gibson, would be knocking on the door at Class AAA Rochester.

They also had too much faith that Joe Nathan would be his former self, or at least getting close, in his first year back from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery. They envisioned Nathan and Capps, two former All-Stars, forming a shutdown duo.

Nathan has a 7.63 ERA and is back on the DL due to a strained flexor muscle in the elbow.

Jose Mijares also has been on the DL with an elbow injury. The lefthander entered the year with a 2.49 ERA, so the Twins were counting on him heavily, but even when healthy, he's been a liability.

The team's setup problems left Gardenhire asking more of Capps, who blew three saves after entering in the eighth inning.

"Obviously, we've had some challenges out there, and some of it hasn't worked," Smith said. "But we're still optimistic that Joe Nathan's going to come back. We're doing everything we can with him on his rehab, so he can be an effective -- if not a dominant -- reliever out there."

One positive bullpen development has been Glen Perkins, who assumed the top setup role and posted a 1.59 ERA before going on the DL because of a strained oblique muscle.

Perkins is an example that in-house candidates can emerge. It happened for the Twins years ago with Guardado, Hawkins, Rincon, Guerrier and Crain.

The Twins have seen recent promise from Burnett, Phil Dumatrait, Chuck James and Anthony Slama, albeit for small stretches.

But they were banking on too many success stories, and the dismal results have added to the team-wide failure.

***


  • TWINS 6, KANSAS CITY 0

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