Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Construction of Twins' bullpen has a blueprint

In 2010, with an average velocity of 94.7 miles per hour, the Chicago White Sox’s bullpen was the hardest throwing unit in all of baseball. This heat led to the highest strikeout rate among relievers in the American League (9.05 K/9) and one of the better overall bellpens. On Monday, they introduced their newest right-handed rifleman, Jesse Crain

Not all too surprising, during his introduction to the South Side, Chicago reporters immediately turned their attention to the team that had finished atop the division for two consecutive years. After all, the White Sox have failed to catch their rival and Crain had been an instrumental component in inflicting that damage. While donning a Twins uniform, the righty held the White Sox to a lowly .185 average against.  

The 29-year-old former Twin-turned-Sock has some enlightening words to say regarding his old employer’s future:
"As for the Twins, I’m not exactly sure what direction they’re going. They like to build from within, but with that said, I don’t know what they will do. There are a couple of prospects coming up, but they don’t have a lot of experience. It will definitely be interesting to see how it will play out. Losing me and [reliever Matt Guerrier to the Los Angeles Dodgers] will hurt them."
While some might interpret this statement from Crain brimming with brash overconfidence with a dash of cockiness, there is some obvious truth to his words. Considering that he and Guerrier combined to digest 30.4% (139 innings) of the Twins’ total relief innings last year, a vast majority of those in high leverage situations as well, Minnesota has a lot of innings to redistribute. And a lot of those arms anticipated to fill the void are chock full of uncertainty.

Internally, the team is banking on rapid resurgences from Joe Nathan (who likely will not be running at full-speed out of the gates) and Pat Neshek to replace those important innings. Without question, a healthy Nathan/Neshek can be an extremely formidable combination. Include Matt Capps in the mix and the later portion of the game appears accounted for – if all goes according to plan.
The concern is if either arm is unable to maintain the workload required of them, as Crain noted, the Twins have to turn to pitchers that lack experience. These arms included Alex Burnett and Anthony Slama, who have both sampled some MLB innings in 2010, Rob Delaney or Carlos Gutierrez. On paper and in theory, all of them have stuff capable of thriving in the bullpen it is just the matter of executing at the big league level.
Meanwhile, Crain continued to inform his new audience about the Twins financial mindset when it came to building the bullpen:
“The Twins weren’t looking to sign a guy for more than $3.5 million a year. They were out from the beginning, and we didn’t even negotiate with them. They have been smart with the way they do things, but we’ll see.”
Despite a deep reliever market, after the Tigers signed Joaquin Benoit prices suddenly inflated like negotiations were operating within the Argentinean economy. With every free agent anticipating a similar deal, the Twins were smart to remain idle allowing the more desperate teams can overpay in money and years. Crain was no different from his fellow relievers and the Twins realized this.
In general, outside of Joe Nathan, the Twins rarely make long-term, big money commitments to bullpen members. They certainly eschew bringing in free agent relievers for multiple years at an inflated cost. When building his bullpen the past several years, general manager Bill Smith has made small contract commitments (i.e., Luis Ayala, R.A. Dickey), shrewd trades (Jon Rauch) and promoted from within (Jose Mijares, Alex Burnett) while making seemingly insignificant but occasionally useful minor league signings (Bobby Keppel).
If you review this offseason to date, the Twins have followed a strikingly similar blueprint this winter. The Twins nabbed several minor league free agents this winter that could be relief contributors in the right-handed Eric Hacker and the left-handed Chuck James. Likewise, the J.J. Hardy trade brought in James Hoey, who, if able to get under control, could be an extremely effective strikeout artist for league minimum wage. Plus, the aforementioned Burnett or Slama could be names summoned from the ‘pen regularly as well. Obviously at this juncture the majority of brand name relievers are now off the market and the Twins may peel off an intriguing arm that didn’t merit multi-year deals before the winter is over.
For years, the bullpen has been one of the Twins’ biggest assets. Since ’06, they have had the American League’s lowest ERA (3.61), baseball’s lowest walk rate (3.14 BB/9), fewest losses (93) and allowed the fewest runs (1,061) -- thanks in part to the recently departed Crain and Guerrier. While they may not have the sexy strikeout rates or velocity like their Chicago opponents, the Twins have consistently built and re-built without needing to invest as many dollars or years.