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Can the Twins bullpen turn the clock back to 2003?

Twenty years ago, the pen was a powerhouse

Minneapolis MN, 9/23/03 Twins Clinch---Twins closer Eddie Guardado clebrated their 4-1 win of Cleveland on Tuesday night. The Twins won their second American League Central divison Championship.

Heading into the 2023 season, the Minnesota Twins have reasons to be optimistic about their bullpen. Jhoan Duran is an established velocity superstar, Caleb Thielbar continues to bamboozle opposing hitters, and both Griffin Jax & Trevor Megill harbor intent to touch triple digits themselves. Sure, the front office may be a little overconfident in the unit based on past performance, but there is evidence to suggest that a pitch mix change may also pay dividends. All in all, it certainly doesn’t look like a build-on-the-fly scenario.

That being said, the Twins of current vintage will have a high bar to clear if the relief corps wants to match what transpired 20 years ago.

When thinking back on the ‘03 squad, you probably do so with fond memories of a second consecutive AL Central crown. Those early-Gardenhire teams were never buttering the bread with offense—just slightly above league-average in runs-per-game that year—so it must have been a pitching-dominant effort, right?

Well, you wouldn’t know it from the starting staff...

  • Brad Radke: 14-10, 212.1 IP, 4.49 ERA, 101 ERA+
  • Kyle Lohse: 14-11, 201 IP, 4.61 ERA, 98 ERA+
  • Kenny Rogers: 13-8, 195 IP, 4.57 ERA, 99 ERA+
Rogers delivers pitch
“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em—know when to fold ‘em...”
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images
  • Rick Reed: 6-12, 135 IP, 5.07 ERA, 90 ERA+
  • Joe Mays: 8-8, 130 IP, 6.30 ERA, 72 ERA+

I’m not sure one could pick a more pedestrian group of starters by blindly throwing darts at MLB rosters. Not team-sinking—but nothing that would hoist a banner on its strength alone. So, how did the 2003 Twins land atop the AL Central heap?

Ladies & gentlemen—the ‘03 bullpen:

  • Eddie Guardado: 41 saves, 157 ERA+
  • Juan Rincon: 85.2 IP, 124 ERA+
Juan Rincon
Setup man extraordinaire
Photo by Craig Jones/Getty Images
  • LaTroy Hawkins: 77.1 IP, 244 ERA+
  • Johan Santana: 48 IP, 3.56 ERA, 27 games

Basically, the ‘03 winning formula was this: the starters do juuuust enough to get the game past six innings in semi-winnable form, the offense does juuuust enough to somehow scrap out a lead, and then the pen Locks. It. Down.

Of course, Santana eventually began toeing the rubber in the first frame instead of the last few to the tune of an 11-2 record, 110.1 IP, and 2.85 ERA in 18 starts. Essentially a precursor to his 2004 Cy Young Award-winning performance.

Starter Johan Santana is on the mound for the Minnesota Twin
Santana winning a playoff game at Yankee Stadium. Difficult to fathom from the current perspective.
Photo by Linda Cataffo/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

I’m not sure the 2003 bullpen was the best in Twins history. The late 1960s saw a formidable Al Worthington & Ron Perranoski team-up, while the Triple T’s (Taylor-Tyler-Trevor) of 2019 were also a nightmare gauntlet. But if the 2023 Twins want to trust what comes out of Target Field’s CF gate, they could do a lot worse than duplicating the ‘03 results.