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Twins Bullpen Is Dominant, Cheap and Not Going Anywhere

There's a "99 problems but relief pitching ain't one" joke somewhere in here. Oh, I think I just made it.

Go ahead and celebrate, Casey. Turns out, you're pretty good.
Go ahead and celebrate, Casey. Turns out, you're pretty good.
Ed Zurga

The Twins have plenty of issues to sort out in 2014 and beyond, with question marks in the rotation, at the infield corners, on the bench, etc. etc. Luckily, general manager Terry Ryan and his staff can focus on those areas of need without needing to give much thought as to how to improve the bullpen, because it's one of the best in the business.

In fact, the Twins' bullpen leads all Major League bullpens in wins above replacement (per Fangraphs). While that's largely because the rotation has been disastrous and forced the bullpen to pick up a ton of innings, it's also because the bullpen is largely stocked with talented arms -- each of whom is controlled through at least the 2015 season. The Twins don't need to prepare to replace any of these relievers for next season, or even the one after that, and that's a luxury that most teams just don't have.

Twins relievers rank sixth in baseball with a 3.02 ERA and second with a 3.27 FIP. They're 15th in xFIP, but that's due to the fact that they're an extreme flyball staff that allows homers at a below-league-average clip. While that leaves a chance for regression, it's also explainable. The Twins play in a spacious home park that limits homers, particularly for left-handed hitters. Opposite-field shots are rare from either side of the plate. On the road, Twins relievers allow homers at slightly above-average clip. At home, they're well-below average. And, in general, flyball pitchers will have a lower homer-to-flyball ratio and greater percentage of infield flies than other pitchers. Not surprisingly, Twins relievers are inducing pop-ups at the third-highest rate in the Majors. xFIP assumes a league-average HR/FB ratio, which the Twins should be able to stay underneath.

From a financial standpoint, Glen Perkins and Jared Burton are the wealthiest members of the group, but neither will come close to breaking the bank on their current contracts. A look at the Twins' relief corps in 2014, from a financial standpoint, would go something like this (* indicates estimate for arbitration):

  • Glen Perkins: $3.75MM
  • Jared Burton: $3.25MM
  • Brian Duensing: $2MM*
  • Anthony Swarzak: $1.3MM*
  • Josh Roenicke: $1.2MM*
  • Casey Fien: $520K
  • Ryan Pressly: $510K
  • Caleb Thielbar: $500K

In other words, the Twins should be able to bring back their entire bullpen in 2014 for the same price (give or take a couple hundred thousand dollars) that the Phillies will pay just to bring back a declining Jonathan Papelbon (sorry, Phillies fans).

I'm not assuming everyone in the group will repeat their 2013 numbers. Roenicke, in particular, has been pretty fortunate, given his low BABIP and marginal K/BB numbers. Thielbar's not going to post a 0.89 ERA and maintain a .139 BABIP either, but he should still be good for an ERA in the mid- to low-3.00 range. Even if they regress, Duensing should see his numbers improve.

The Twins have done an excellent job in anchoring the 'pen with three high-strikeout arms in Perkins, Fien and Burton. They've quietly turned Swarzak into the best long reliever in baseball. He leads Major League relievers in innings pitched (72) by six innings, and he's sporting a 3.00 ERA and a 3.30 FIP. Thielbar and Duensing will both be effective against lefties going forward. Pressly and Roenicke aren't as good as the rest of the bunch, but neither has been a disaster this season, and if either blows up in 2014, Michael Tonkin's 2.49 ERA and 4.38 K/BB ratio are waiting at Rochester.

The Twins have a lot of work to do in 2014-15 to put together a team that's capable of getting leads early in the game and putting together a starting staff that can hold them in the early innings, but the inexpensive arms they've collected to hold those leads aren't going anywhere. And they're pretty damn good at what they do.