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Juan Rincon Is Good

Cuddyer:  Somebody might wanna go get a trainer.

Rincon:  Yes.

Cuddyer:  Is he pitching tonight?

Rincon:  Yes.

A man of few words, at least english words, Juan Rincon has been the set-up man for the Twins since 2004.  It seems he's been the set-up man for longer than that though, doesn't it?

Career Retro

Rincon made his major league debut on June 7, 2001, at the age of 22.  He made only four appearances, between the 7th and 16th of June, pitching 5.2 innings and striking out four, but allowing five walks and seven hits leading to five runs.  He returned from where he came, AA New Britain, where he'd spent the majority of the year as a starting pitcher.  Rincon finished the season 14-6 with a 2.88 ERA in 153.1 innings for the Rock Cats, allowing only 130 hits and striking out 133.

In 2002 he started in AAA Edmonton, where once again he was primarily used as a starter.  His appearances with the Twins were brief and staggered, and in the end he played in only ten games between June 27 and September 29, three of which were starts.  As a result of not just the shifting of levels but the shifting of roles (in addition to qualities such as age, experience and level of competetion), Rincon suffered the worst statistical year of his career.

Rincon spent just two starts and 8.1 innings in Rochester the next spring.  He wouldn't start again for the Twins.  Something changed for Juan in 2003, and suddenly he was able to compete and succeed at a high level for a player just 24 years old.  In his first appearance of the year, he took over for Brad Radke who had left the game after just three innings.  Rincon went five strong, striking out six and allowing no runs.  Proceeding to pitch out of the long relief/middle relief role for the rest of the season, he hasn't looked back.  His role with the Twins was secure.

As the 2004 campaign opened, the bullpen had gone through its first major overhaul since the Twins began their competetive run.  With closer Eddie Guardado and set-up man LaTroy Hawkins lost to free agency, the Twins had brought in swingman Joe Nathan in addition to promoting southpaw J.C. Romero.  Romero had a rough year in '03, but because of his stellar 2002 season, management wanted to give him a shot at being the primary set-up man, if not a shot at being the closer.

Romero started 2004 strong but soon found himself the subject of mass criticism, his ERA ballooning to well over 5.00 at two different points of the summer.  He was even sent to Rochester for a "get your act together" stint, before returning to the Twins and closing out the year with 18 scoreless appearances.  That stretch lowered his ERA to a quality level, but he was still walking way too many people.  Somewhere along the line, he lost his job to Juan Rincon.  If the move hadn't been set in stone prior to July 28, that was the day that Rincon officially became the Twins set-up man.

In the seventh inning of a crucial game against the White Sox, Romero had come on in relief of Carlos Silva, the Twins leading 4-3 with one man on and two away.  He proceeded to walk two and give up a hit, allowing the inherited runner to score.  The bases remained full.  With the game now tied at four Juan Rincon entered the game, and Carlos Lee went down swinging.  Rincon proved at that point that he had what it took to succeed under pressure, and he's been Joe Nathan's wingman ever since.

Just HOW good is Juan Rincon?

It's been said since 2004 that he could be a closer on many other teams.  While we can't answer that question without some speculation, we can look at other American League set-up men of the last three years and see how they've turned out.

Andrew Sisco, Kansas City Royals:  Sisco's run of dominance lasted just his rookie season.  In '05 he struck out more than a batter per inning.  In '06 his ERA was 7.10.

Demaso Marte, Chicago White Sox:  Marte has actually strung together a series of good seasons, but is a tried-and-failed closer and has changed leagues.  He now pitches for the Pirates, and isn't their set-up man.

Scot Shields, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim:  Shields has actually been very solid since becoming F-Rod's set-up man, posting sub-3.00 ERAs in 2005 and 2006.  He's off to a slow start in '07, but mainly he doesn't stack up to Rincon because he plays for the only team in baseball with an unabashedly stupid name.  Take a stand, Major League Baseball, they can't play in two cities at once.

Tom Gordon, New York Yankees:  In '04 and '05, Gordon briefly revived his career as the set-up guy to the best closer in the history of baseball.  Unfortunately, at 39, his best days are behind him and is no longer a premier relief pitcher.

B.J. Ryan, Baltimore Orioles:  He was a great set-up man in 2004.  So good, in fact, that he became the closer for the Orioles in 2005.  He now closes for Toronto. (He and his 12.46 ERA, snicker.)

Pitchers who excel in the set-up role either A: Are promoted to closer or B: Fade away.  What Juan Rincon has done isn't normally done. He and Shields are exceptions.  Relief pitchers are a dime a dozen, but to have one as consistent and talented as Rincon for four years running is a stroke of good fortune for the Twins.  That is, if you want to call an insanely talented pitcher putting up good numbers "good fortune". Essentially, Rincon has been good enough to be a closer, and good enough that the Twins don't want to trade him...albeit they definitely could.

Part of the reason the Twins have been able to keep him around is because of his major league experience.  Coming into 2007 Juan was still arbitration eligible, even though this is his age 28 season.  If he had been eligible for free agency, he'd likely be making at least double the $2,000,000 he's earning with Minnesota.

PECOTA predicts that Rincon will remain a highly effective pitcher over the next five seasons.  His skill set undoubtedly helps; a mid-90's fastball, a slider with good break, a cut fastball that runs in on left-handers, and a changeup make up a formidable arsenal.  If this is indeed the case, the Twins will have to make a decision on what they'd like to do with their Venezuelan right hander.  If they aren't going to promote him to the closer role he's earned over the last three seasons, he'll either be traded or lost via free agency.  For the money he'll be able to demand, the Twins won't be able to retain him in the set-up role.

So while we have him, enjoy him.  He's a quality guy (steroid suspension or not), he accepts his role and he's damned good at what he does.  Rincon is one of the two reasons our bullpen is one of, if not THE best 8th/9th inning combos in the game.

Year  Age    IP   ERA   K/9  K/BB  WHIP OpAvg
2003   24  85.2  3.68  6.62  3.99  1.31  .231
2004   25  82.0  2.63 11.63  3.51  1.02  .181
2005   26  77.0  2.46  9.82  3.51  1.21  .224
2006   27  74.1  2.91  7.87  2.91  1.35  .270
2007   28  10.2  1.69 11.81  6.75  1.69  .244