It appears that the polarizing Twins topic of the first ten days of spring training is the Twins bullpen. There are many who believe that the Twins messed up by not adding more veteran relief pitchers to major league contracts during the offseason. I’m firmly on the opposite side of that argument. I believe that the Twins took a good, calculated risk that Joel Zumaya could actually stay healthy in 2012. If that happened, they could have a difference-maker in the bullpen. As it turned out, his spring training was short and thanks to a torn UCL, his season is already over. As soon as Zumaya was hurt, many fans wanted the Twins to respond instantly by acquiring a proven, veteran bullpen arm. The one difference-making bullpen option that may be available would be Rangers’ righty Koji Uehara, but he will make $4+ million in 2012 and has a no trade clause that he has already used.
The Twins have 32 pitchers in big league camp. Taking out the starting pitchers and the four relievers who are all but guaranteed a big league spot (Capps, Perkins, Swarzak, Duensing), and up to 21 players are vying for the remaining four spots. 11 of those are non-roster free agents. My opinion is that the organization has about a month to see if they can fill the three remaining bullpen positions from that group of 21. Here is a quick look at that list:
On 40 Man Roster: Alex Burnett (24), Terry Doyle (26 - Rule 5 Pick), Jeff Gray (30), Deolis Guerra (21), Carlos Gutierrez (25), Matt Maloney (28), Jeff Manship (27), Lester Oliveros (23), Tyler Robertson (24), Kyle Waldrop (26).
Non-Roster Invites: Jason Bulger (33), Jared Burton (30), Samuel Deduno (28), Phil Dumatrait (30), Casey Fien (28), Luis Perdomo (26), Aaron Thompson (25), Daryl Thompson (26), Esmerling Vasquez (27), PJ Walters (26), Brendan Wise (26).
Some fans will choose to say that these guys either are not good enough, not ready, or that they were available to the Twins as minor league free agents because no one else wanted them. Some might say that some are too old to succeed at this point. Some will say that Pitcher X can’t succeed because we have seen too much of them. Others will say that Pitcher Y can’t pitch, in part, because we haven’t seen them and we know nothing about them other than they became available because another team let them go.
Let me take you back through a little bit of Twins history. Specifically, let’s take a look at some of the Twins bullpen arms from the last decade, but also looking back a little further.
Matt Guerrier came to the Twins after the Pirates placed him on waivers in November of 2003. He was coming off of a 2003 season in AAA Nashville in which he went 4-6 with a 4.53 ERA and just 78 strikeouts in 105.1 innings. The Twins were able to send him to Rochester in 2004, but out of options, he had to make the Twins roster in 2005, and he did. He made the team as the last bullpen arm, and gradually gaining the confidence of the coaching staff to use him in key, late inning situations. He was overused in 2008 and posted a 5.19 ERA. Many fans wanted him let go, but they brought him back and he had two more terrific seasons in the back of the Twins bullpen.
Dennys Reyes came to the Twins before the 2006 season. In 2005, he posted a 5.15 ERA in San Diego. In 2004, he posted a 4-8 record with a 4.75 ERA in Kansas City. In 2003, he spent time with Pittsburgh and Arizona and posted an ERA over 10 with both teams. In 2002, he posted a 6.38 ERA in Texas. So, who would have expected him to, at age 29, go 5-0 with a 0.89 ERA in 66 games with the Twins. He spent two more seasons in the Twins and went a combined 10-1 with a 2.14 ERA in 126.1 innings.
“Everyday” Eddie Guardado is one of the best left-handed relievers in Twins history. He was a failed starter. In 1993 and 1994, he combined to go 18-34 with a 5.22 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP. Once moved to the bullpen, he proved himself and eventually moved into the closer’s role.
LaTroy Hawkins is another failed starter. Even after moving to the bullpen, it took him a couple of years to grasp the concept. From 1995 through 2001, he went 29-54 with a 5.78 ERA. Then in his final two seasons with the Twins (2002-2003), he was one of the best set up men in baseball. He combined to go 15-3 with a 2.00 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP in 157.2 innings.
JC Romero went 3-11 with ERAs of 7.02 and 6.23 in 2000 and 2001, respectively. In 2002, he posted a 1.89 ERA in 81 games out of the Twins bullpen.
Not all relievers come into the big leagues and dominate right away like Jesse Crain, Juan Rincon and Pat Neshek did. Of course, each of those three has also lived the up and down nature of being a relief pitcher in the big leagues. And sometimes, all you need is a guy to come in and have one good year. Check out these examples:
Tony Fiore came to the Twins in May of 2001 after being released by the Devil Rays days earlier. In fact, the Twins had signed him almost exactly two years earlier and sent him to AAA. The Twins released him after the 1999 season. In 18 big league games in 2000 and 2001 with the Devil Rays and Twins, he posted a 7.30 ERA in 24.2 innings. He allowed 30 hits, walked 12 and struck out 16. Then somehow, he went 10-3 with a 3.16 ERA with the Twins in 2002.
The Twins claimed lefty Craig Breslow off of waivers from Cleveland midseason in 2008. He had previously been released by Milwaukee, San Diego and Boston. The then-27 year old posted 1.63 ERA in 42 games with the Twins the remainder of that season.
Let’s go all the way back to the 1991 Twins World Series championship team. The Big Train (Carl Willis) had previously posted an 8.25 ERA with the White Sox in 1988. He was let go by the White Sox, Angels and Indians before signing with the Twins. The 30 year old (in 1991) went 8-3 with a 2.63 ERA for the Twins in 89 innings. In 1992, he posted a 2.72 ERA in 79.1 innings for the Twins. In 1993, he posted a 3.10 ERA in 58 innings for the Twins.
Last offseason, the Twins needed some pitchers to step up for the Twins in their bullpen. One pitcher did that. Glen Perkins posted 2.48 ERA in 61.2 innings out of the Twins bullpen. He was easily the Twins top pitcher despite the fact that most fans wanted him to be released after a couple of disastrous seasons.
Most of these guys’ success occurred after players had turned 27 or 28 years old. When I see guys who have had big league success like Jared Burton and Jason Bulger brought in on minor league deals, I think it is exciting. Hard-throwers like Vasquez, Perdomo and Deduno are certainly at least intriguing. Youngsters like Alex Burnett and Lester Oliveros warrant some patience. A guy like Kyle Waldrop has put in his time in the minors and earned an opportunity in the big leagues. His ground ball rates are incredible. Brendan Wise is an Australian who hasn’t played in the big leagues but who profiles a lot like Waldrop. Carlos Gutierrez needs to stay healthy, but the hard thrower in another ground ball machine. Deolis Guerra is still the youngest player on the Twins 40 man roster and has a tremendous changeup and his numbers after moving to the bullpen last year were great. Jeff Manship profiles very much like Matt Guerrier. They throw with the same velocity, same control, same changeup and curveballs that are often described as the best in the organization. Unfortunately Manship was hurt last year, but he comes into spring training healthy and should perform. Two guys that seemingly have been forgotten but are not gone from the Twins could also factor into the Twins bullpen later in the season. Anthony Slama and David Bromberg were both removed from the 40 man roster and outrighted to Rochester. Neither was even invited to big league camp, but Slama has put up some of the best minor league bullpen numbers that we’ve seen in recent years. Bromberg will likely start the season as a starter, but cold be a bullpen arm to consider later in the season.
Listen, I’ll be the first person to tell you that the Twins bullpen was a mess in 2011. I will also say that of the Twins biggest question marks coming into the 2012 season, the bullpen is atop that list. But based on an organizational history of giving guys opportunities to move up and contribute, I’m at the very least intrigued by some interesting roster and non-roster bullpen possibilities. I’m willing to get to the end of March before considering looking for a trade.