Late-inning leads have seemed so rare for the Twins that it's easy to overlook just how effectively the bullpen has been able to protect them. But make no mistake, Minnesota's relief unit has been among the finest in baseball this year.
Only 44 times in their 110 games have the Twins carried a lead into the seventh inning, but in those games they are 34-7. When entering the eighth with a lead, they are 38-5. When entering the ninth with a lead, they're 42-1 (thank you, Mr. Perkins). Twins relievers rank third in the AL in ERA, second in WHIP, first in FIP and first in WAR (per FanGraphs).
The bullpen has without question been the greatest strength of this team. That's not exactly ideal; you'd certainly prefer to see a lineup and starting staff capable of building more leads rather than relief pitchers who can excel in the (often fruitless) late innings. But the Twins' top-notch bullpen has helped prevent the season from unraveling into total disaster, and the beauty of this group is that each member is fairly young and remains under team control through next year or beyond.
It wasn't so long ago that the Twins' bullpen was a mess. In 2011, Twins relievers posted the highest ERA in the majors, with failed experiments like Jim Hoey and Dusty Hughes contributing to the chaos. That was uncharacteristic for an organization that has typically been great at uncovering overlooked arms capable of becoming crucial late-inning cogs.
The Twins have regained that edge in the past couple seasons, with productive hurlers such as Jared Burton (whom Parker wrote a this terrific piece on), Casey Fien and Josh Roenicke being acquired either through waivers or on minor-league deals. By utilizing these avenues, and by producing a homegrown closer, Terry Ryan has been able to put together a unit that is not only effective, but cost-effective. Glen Perkins is presently the team's highest-paid reliever at $2.5 million; in 2011 the Twins were paying about $18.5 million for Joe Nathan and Matt Capps alone.
Some salaries will escalate slightly next year, and performances may vary, but for the most part it looks like the Twins should be able to maintain a strong, inexpensive bullpen, allowing them to dedicate the bulk of offseason resources and attention to more needy areas.
That's a relief, eh?