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Twins bullpen woes: Are there solutions?

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The Achilles heel of the Twins in 2008 was its bullpen, which regularly imploded, especially after Pat Neshek was put on the disabled list. Can the 2009 pen improve on the unit's 2008 performance, in which it blew 26 saves? Early returns suggest that this pen is even worse than last year's pen. At least last year's pen had a couple of months with Neshek to nail down the eighth inning. This year's pen has no clear eighth-inning guy. Because the other set-up roles hinge on  eighth-inning clarity, manager Ron Gardenhire (Gardy) is left juggling every night, something he had spotty success with in 2008.

The stakes are high: Find some stability in the bullpen or suffer through a year of blown saves and futile chances of postseason glory. So what can the front office do to fix the bullpen and save the season before it spirals out of control? The options are actually better than casual fans might think. In this blogger's opinion, the Twins have enough depth in the minors to fix the problem. The question is, will the front office act before it's too late?

Assessing what we have in the majors

Before assessing the options in the minors, let's look at what we have in the majors. To net it out for scanners: It's not good.

  • Jesse Crain: Crain appears to have his stuff back the second year after shoulder surgery, which is a good sign. And, until Friday night, he looked like the perfect candidate to fill the eighth-inning role. Tuesday night's extra inning performance, in particular, made it look like he could be the man for the eighth. He showed similar flashes of brilliance last year in pressure situations, but he struggled to stay consistent. Friday night he proved he has yet to establish consistency. Whether he can establish consistency this year is an open question. He's certainly an option, but other options must be examined.
  • Matt Guerrier: Guerrier had one of the worst second halves of any reliever in the majors last year. Twins fans from the 80s will understand it when I say it was truly RD-like, circa 1986. After such a collapse, why did the Twins so readily bring him back this year? Well he was so good beforehand, it appeared to be an aberration. Conventional wisdom said fatigue had taken the life from his pitches, with predictable results (contrary to his actual usage data). So would an off season of rest bring back his stuff? I have expressed my doubts here, which have been unfortunately confirmed in the early goings. He too struggles with consistency, but, unlike Crain, his good performances to date are the exception rather than the rule. I think he's proven he can't be the eighth-inning guy. If he's used right, however, he could be an effective middle or long man, which is where he's had most of his success. The key for him is usage; and it's clear neither Gardy nor Andy know how to use him right yet. Even with proper usage, he might be a candidate later in the year for DFA if he doesn't start pitching better.
  • Craig Breslow: Breslow was one of the few bright spots last year in limited duty. Why his duty was so limited was a mystery, and the hope going into this year was that he would replicate his performance with more work. So far, that hope is fading fast. He's already had two appearances without getting an out, which is two more than last year. It's no exaggeration to say he's the biggest disappointment in the bullpen so far this season. His new role of left-handed specialist seems to suit him not at all. It seems he could be effective in the role he had last year--middle reliever for righties and lefties. But that means the Twins will need to get a LOOGY to replace Dennys Reyes because Breslow is not the guy. As we shall see, there is LOOGY in Rochester doing quite well. So there is some hope here.
  • Luis Ayala: Beyond Neshek's elbow problems, the other big blow to the bullpen last year was the disaster that was Juan Rincon. Faced with needing to replace both Neshek and get an arm to upgrade Rincon's slot, Bill Smith came up with Luis Ayala. So far, Rincon (who is pitching for Detroit) is out pitching Ayala, not that that's saying much (a 5+ ERA vs. a 7+ ERA). Ayala has looked horrible this year. Gardy appeared to put him in the eighth-inning role to begin with, which didn't work at all. Now he seems relegated to mop-up duty. Unfortunately, this team has had a lot of mop-up duty this year, so we've seen Ayala a lot more than many of us want to. There was some hope that this would be the year for him to recover from Tommy John surgery and return to the form he had prior to surgery. But the history of guys who rely on the sinker post TJ is not good (see Mays, Joe). So there's little hope he'll be any better going forward. He's definitely a candidate to follow Philip Humber in the ranks of DFAed pitchers. The sooner the better, IMHO.
  • RA Dickey: Dickey started out taking Scott Baker's slot in the rotation as Baker nursed a stiff shoulder in Fort Myers. When Baker returned, Dickey went to the bullpen. Gardy loves this guy because he can pitch everyday. Therein lies the problem. It's one thing for a guy to have a rubber arm. It's quite another for him to get outs with it. When he gave up a first-pitch grand slam the other day, Twins fans got a taste of things to come. Dickey could be useful as a mop-up guy. But counting on him to get outs in close-and-late situations is a pipe dream, considering his propensity to give up walks and homers. The sooner Gardy realizes that, the better.
  • Juan Morillo: The Twins have not wasted time in trying to fix the problem with this bullpen, designating Philip Humber for assignment and claiming Juan Morillo off waivers from Colorado on Friday. Morillo has a power arm, which is definitely needed in this organization. Let's hope he can harness his stuff to get outs. But he's a development project who should not be given a lot of high-pressure situations until he shows he can do it consistently. Bottom line, though it's a good sign that the Twins are willing to make moves to improve the pen, we can't count on him for anything right now. His minor league numbers suggest he'll strike out a lot of guys, but he'll also walk a lot of batters, which is not a great thing for a late-inning reliever.

Assessing what we have in the minors

The good news is, the situation in the minors looks promising. For the first time in years, the Twins have several arms who have been extremely successful as relievers. So, rather than needing to convert starters to relievers and develop guys in the majors, the Twins should be able to call on guys who are used to bullpen roles and can help sooner rather than later.

  • Jose Mijares: The Twins were counting on Mijares to come to spring training in shape and pick up where he left off in September last year, when he was the only legitimate replacement for Neshek in the second half. But Mijares came to camp overweight, tweaked a groin muscle early in camp, and never pitched well. So he's down in Rochester getting himself back on track. Fortunately, he's yet to give up a run in Rochester, and it appears he's close to being ready to come back to the team. When he was sent down, he said he expected to get back by June. But Bill Smith pulled him aside and told him he wanted him ready in April. So perhaps Smith foresaw this situation and needed Mijares to be an option right away. This indicates that he could be up as soon as they DFA Ayala, which he's a couple of more bad outings away from IMO. The good news there is Mijares can fill the shoes of Dennys Reyes (he could even fill his jumbo-sized jersey), allowing Breslow to return to the middle-inning generalist role he thrived in last year. Crain might not be able to handle all the eighth-inning duties, but he might be able to share them with Mijares.
  • Anthony Slama: In this bloggers opinion, Slama is the best relief prospect the Twins have had since Pat Neshek. He won all sorts of awards for his work last year in Fort Myers last season, with good reason. He had sick numbers as the Miracle's closer and continues his dominating ways as New Britain's closer this year. Some might say there are relievers in Rochester ahead of him. But aside from Mijares, there is no better reliever in the organization than Slama. And the Twins won't hesitate to go get him if they need someone to replace a struggling middle guy.
  • Rob Delaney: A lot of analysts actually rate Delaney higher than Slama, which is saying a lot. Though neither guy was rated very highly out of college (Slama was a 39th-round draft choice and Delaney went undrafted), they have both had incredible minor league careers, typically at the same level. Analysts who rate Delaney ahead of Slama likely do so because of his promotion to New Britain from Fort Myers last year. Why didn't the Twins promote Slama instead? I don't know, but Slama actually had better numbers than Delaney did at Fort Myers last year. Other than numbers, the reason I rate Slama higher is the Twins have made him the closer whenever he and Delaney pitched together in the same pen, as is the case this year in New Britain. Slama also had a better spring, and like Mijares, has yet to give up a run in the early going as the Rock Cats' closer. Still, Delaney is another good option in case of injury or continued poor pitching by the current bullpen.

Conclusion

Take heart, Twins fans. As usual, the lads have gotten out of the gate slowly as the coaching staff struggles to fit the pieces of the roster puzzle together. But early adjustments can save the team from an early demise. And there's no place like the bullpen to start the maneuvering, which appears underway already. It looks like the Twins will not have to go outside of the organization to upgrade some key spots in late-inning relief.