Look back a decade: Torii Hunter spent a couple of seasons making people wonder about his skills before becoming a star. Look back a generation: Frank Viola spent two seasons with a five-plus ERA before blossoming. Tell me why Casilla is utterly hopeless?
Howard Sinker in his A Fan's View blog yesterday made a tremendous point. It is important to remain patient. Of course, in Viola's third year, he posted a 3.21 ERA over 257.2 innings. I think Alexi Casilla will be fine. I think that Tsuyoshi Nishioka will be just fine. Will either post a .730 OPS? Probably not, but that doesn't mean that they won't fill their roles adequately. I just don't think that offense will be the biggest issue for the Twins in 2011. Pitching, both starting and bullpen, is where there are question marks, but the cupboard is not empty.
What I would like to see is if 29-year-old Scott Baker, in his seventh season with the Twins, can hit 200 innings (or post a sub-4.20 ERA) for just the second time, and earn his $5 million salary. I'd like to see Kevin Slowey, in his fifth big league season, be 100% healthy, and see what he can do. He threw 199 innings in 2007 between Rochester and Minnesota. I'd like to see Nick Blackburn get back to going 11-11 with an ERA between 4.03 and 4.05 like he did in 2008 and 2009. As bad as portions of their 2010 seasons were, none of this is unrealistic. They have done it before. Along with that, maybe Brian Duensing can prove a lot of us wrong and put together another strong season in 2011, hopefully the full season as a starter. And, Francisco Liriano put himself back in discussion for best pitchers in the league (which is also helped by Cliff Lee moving to the NL). If healthy, he can still continue to improve.
So, if Carl Pavano leaves for greener pastures in places like Washington, D.C., or Pittsburgh, it really is not the end of the world. What are the odds that he could post a 3.75 ERA again or throw another 221 innings in a season? Not terribly good.
The Twins have a history of building from within, or giving opportunities to players who have come up through their system, and to stand behind them through struggles. We have seen it time and again. And for the most part over the last decade, it has paid off. The Twins have used free agents to complement their core of home-grown players. Last year, there wasn't a solid internal option at second base, so they signed Orlando Hudson.
Last week, the Twins lost Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier to free agency. It is likely that they will not bring back Brian Fuentes, Jon Rauch or Ron Mahay either. Fans, understandably, are up in arms about the lack of certainty in the Twins bullpen. There is no certainty that Joe Nathan will return to form in 2011. Jose Mijares is immensely talented, but he was up and down in 2010. Matt Capps is the given in the Twins bullpen, and he is what he is (a solid reliever). Beyond that, there are a lot of question marks.
Twins fans don't want to hear about someone like Glen Perkins being a bullpen option in 2011. There are also a lot of guys with little or no big league experience being mentioned as options. I understand that is scary. We want certainty in the bullpen, right? Certainty, in this case, would have been retaining Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier because they are veterans, right? But if I read the comments here at the StarTribune.com blogs or many Twins blogs, most blog commenters were not big fans of Jesse Crain. Most blog commenters were not exactly confident when Matt Guerrier would come into games. But aside from Rafael Soriano, Brian Fuentes and Type A free agent and former Twins pitcher Grant Balfour, few relievers have been more reliable than Crain and Guerrier. And you didn't want them back. So, who would be out there at this stage that could be counted on more? I am a proponent of signing RHP Jose Veras and LHP Hideki Okajima, but in each case, there are reasons that their 2010 team non-tendered them. Certainly not guarantees.
Simply stated, there are very few reliable relief pitchers from year to year. Most (or at least many) relief pitchers are failed starters. There are a lot of injuries. It is in the bullpen where you can find diamonds in the rough. It's where guys (like Guerrier) who are out of options to get an opportunity, and a few take advantage of it. Look at the Yankees' David Robertson. In 2009, he was a question mark. In 2010, he was getting put into some pretty big situations for the pinstripes.
With that said, there are a lot of options for breakout types in the Twins bullpen. Remember that they only need three or four of these guys to produce for the Twins in 2011:
- Anthony Slama - It amazes me that many Twins fans seem to think he can't contribute to the team. Are people really willing to say that a poor 4.2 inning debut in the big leagues tells us that he can't pitch up there? Really? His 1.95 ERA over four minor league seasons mean nothing? His 12.5 K/9 means nothing? His 1.06 WHIP? His 2.44 ERA in one-plus seasons at AAA mean nothing? Bloggers and blog commenters have been clamoring for Slama for a few years, and now they'll give up on him? Because of 4.2 bad innings? I think Slama can be a solid 7th inning guy.
- Alex Burnett - he has a chance to be really good. He came up as a starter, a successful starter, but in 2009, he moved to the bullpen. Despite not pitching in AAA, and only a short time in AA, he was on teh Twins Opening Day roster and spent most of the first half with the Twins. He struggled as the season went along, but he has great stuff and will definitely be back with the Twins, eventually pitching late innings.
- Pat Neshek - It amazes me how quickly some Twins fans turned on the sind-winding reliever. Yes, his velocity was down. I get that. But this year, he will get an actual offseason of working out and preparing, not an offseason of rehabilitation. Will he come back and be as incredible as he was in 2006 and 2007? Maybe, maybe not, but I'm willing to give him that opportunity.
- James Hoey - Similarly, there was a lot of excitement about Hoey with the Orioles in 2006 and 2007. The righty throws hard and was generally thought to be the closer of the future with Baltimore. And then he had shoulder surgery, and he worked his way back up the ladder. His velocity is back. The strikeouts are back. He will need to cut down walks, but he is a power arm that the Twins bullpen needs.
- Rob Delaney - Delaney was undrafted in 2006 and dominated the lower levels of the minor leagues, including AA. AAA has been more of a struggle, but consider that in 80 AAA innings, he walked just 23 and struck out 92. Sure, his one inning in the big leagues last September wasn't pretty. He looked nervous and gave up a homer, a single and a walk before getting the three outs. But again, I've heard some say that he can't handle the big leagues because of that one outing.
- Kyle Waldrop - It surprised a lot of people that the Twins didn't protece Waldrop after a terrific 2010 season with the Rochester Red Wings. Since returning from his shoulder surgery, he has been incredible out of the bullpen. After 20 games in Ft. Myers, he posted a 1.46 ERA in 31 New Britain games. He posted a 2.57 ERA in 2010 in Rochester, but his ERA was at ONE halfway through the 2010 season. Yes, he was not good in the Arizona Fall League, but he still has a chance to be a very good, groundball reliever.
- Glen Perkins - A left-hander who did succeed a few years ago as a starter, he looks to be a lefty reliever in 2010. Of course, he doesn't get left-handed batters out, so I just don't know how he can contribute, but stranger things have happened when players get opportunities.
- Eric Hacker, Yorman Bazardo, Jeff Manship, Anthony Swarzak, Chuck James - These guys could all get an opportunity for a long relief role. Manship filled the role toward the end of 2010 and could do so again, but the others are options.
- Carlos Gutierrez - In a podcast just last week, Gutierrez informed me that he wants to pitch out of the bullpen, that it is where he is 'at home.' However, he acknowledged that spending the last couple of years as a starter has been valuable in helping him develop secondary pitches. I'm frequently asked who could be the 2011 version of Danny Valencia. Kyle Gibson certainly could come up in June and contributed as a starter. Carlos Gutierrez could come up in June and really help out the Twins bullpen.
Are any of those big name acquisitions? No. They are internal options. Can any of them contribute to the Twins in 2011? Absolutely. Can three of four of them join Nathan, Capps and Mijares to form a solid bullpen? Defintely. Am I just trying to be positive here? Probably. But can the internal choices be equal or better than the external, high-cost free agents? Absolutely.
The Twins historically have relied upon their own players, on building from within. It's been a philosophy that has worked well for them. Even if their payroll has gone from $65 million to $100 million to $115 million, there is no reason to start spending foolishly on free agents or giving up the farm for players who might help. Can the Twins win the division with their current roster? I think so. It'd be tough, but I would not put it against them.
To be fair (and honest), I have been immensely frustrated with the Twins offseason. I expected them to wisely stay away from high-dollar free agents. I thought we might hear more about trades than we have. The Twins might soon spend a lot of money for two or three years on a guy who is already 35 years old. They could also give two years to a 40 year old one-dimensional player. I'm sure those moves will make a lot of fans happy. Maybe I'm strange. I figure there are six or seven weeks until pitchers and catchers report, so I still hold out that the team will add an impact player, the type of player who can make a difference without breaking the bank. But I don't know that the team is better. I also don't know what the Twins plans are, or their contingency plans are (if Pavano and/or Thome were to sign elsewhere). No one does because the Twins front office is great at not letting information leak We can't all be Jim Breen!
Finally, Twins fans need to remember one important thing... at least the Twins and their stability is a lot better than following the Vikings and their chaos this year!