For Twins, building bullpen is an art

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 30, 2011 - 6:30 AM

Some GMs, including the Twins' Terry Ryan, have the knack for assembling relievers.

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Lefty Glen Perkins excelled in his set-up role last season, and the Twins seem ready to keep him in that position rather than making him the closer.

Photo: Charlie Riedel, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Last winter, the Twins tried doing a bullpen makeover on the cheap, and it looked like one of those plastic surgeries gone bad.

After years of boasting one of baseball's best relief corps, they had the worst bullpen ERA in the majors (4.51).

Now, after a 63-99 finish, the Twins need another bullpen reconstruction, and this time they're trying to replace team career saves leader Joe Nathan.

The Twins are hunting for bullpen bargains again, since most of their available payroll budget is dedicated to re-signing Michael Cuddyer or Jason Kubel for right field.

"Obviously, I think a bullpen is huge to any successful team," General Manager Terry Ryan said. "I've got a strategy lined up, but I can't say that all my strategies go according to plan."

Ryan has said he wants to add an experienced closer instead of handing the job to Glen Perkins, and the Twins remain open to re-signing Matt Capps, whose stock is down after a rough season.

The Twins also plan to move Brian Duensing back to the bullpen, where he posted a 1.80 ERA in 40 relief appearances in 2010. They still believe Alex Burnett, 24, can blossom into a top reliever, but they aren't as confident about lefthander Jose Mijares.

To fill their other gaping holes, the Twins quietly have been stockpiling hard-throwing righthanders -- Lester Oliveros, Esmerling Vasquez, Jeff Gray and Jason Bulger -- hoping to unearth a gem.

If their statistics seem unimpressive, consider Matt Guerrier's numbers from 2004 (5.68 ERA in 19 innings) or Heath Bell's from 2006 (5.11 ERA in 37 innings pitched).

When Ryan talks about building a bullpen, he doesn't just talk about finding flamethrowers. He wants pitchers with fastball command who limit walks, hold baserunners and field their position.

His philosophy sounds similar to that of Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers, a master of bullpen reconstruction in Arizona and San Diego.

"First of all, it starts with the guy at the back," Towers said earlier this month at the GM meetings in Milwaukee. "You've got to find somebody for the ninth, and preferably somebody who has experience."

Towers lured free-agent J.J. Putz with the chance to close again last season and plucked Arizona's top set-up man, David Hernandez, from the Orioles.

"Hernandez was a starter who we thought would profile well in the 'pen, which he did," Towers said. "Heath Bell was the same way [in San Diego]. So it's not just looking at relievers. You've got to look at fourth and fifth starters who have big arms but maybe struggle in certain areas."

Towers said he doesn't believe in "cookie-cutter bullpens." He wants to give hitters as many different looks as possible to disrupt their timing.

"And you have to have depth, too," Towers said. "You should have at least five, preferably six guys who can pitch in the seventh, eighth and ninth against the middle of the lineup. You can't afford to have the long guy. Long guy means you're getting your butt kicked."

Another GM known for building quality bullpens on the cheap is Tampa Bay's Andrew Friedman, though he shrugs off the success.

"Just look at the volatility of bullpens from year to year," Friedman said. "I mean, we had a really good bullpen in 2008. We returned most of it in 2009. We even made tweaks to make it a little bit better, and we were a lot worse."

For 2010, Friedman stole Rafael Soriano from the Braves and paired him with a righthander off the scrap heap, Joaquin Benoit. When those two left for big-money deals last offseason, Friedman simply found two other gems -- Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta -- in the bullpen bargain bin.

"We just have to operate differently because of our [financial] challenges," Friedman said. "So we kind of put guys in different buckets. We just weren't going to get into situations with three-year deals, so it's easy to set those guys aside and focus on the shorter-term guys and become more specialists in that area."

Ryan has done it before, too. In 2004, the Twins replaced LaTroy Hawkins and Eddie Guardado when Juan Rincon and Nathan emerged as late-inning stalwarts. In 2006, the Twins signed Dennys Reyes to a minor-league deal and watched him post a 0.89 ERA in 66 games.

With their bullpen in tatters, the Twins sure hope Ryan still has the touch.

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