Friday, December 02, 2011

Twins should put their closer search on hold

In efforts to rekindle the passion that has subsided after a disappointing summer, the Twins hosted yet another one of their fan forums. This time, it was general manager Terry Ryan’s turn to attempt to talk the disgruntled down from their ledge.

Howard Sinker listened in on the conference call, one that allowed season ticketholders to interact with the man in charge of the team’s roster construction, and Sinker relayed to his non-season ticketholding twitter followers the talking points in 140-characters or less. In outlining his offseason plans, Ryan said that two of the immediate priorities were finding a closer as well as another starting pitcher.

Ryan has made several mentions of his plans when it comes to addressing the closer’s role. He told listeners on 1500 ESPN that Glen Perkins was not going to inherit the role and that he is looking for an “experienced closer.”  Last night, Ryan commented that the Twins are currently targeting pitchers outside of the organization, mentioning that that person could come in the form of a free agent or possibly through a trade.

The question is, why are the Twins making finding a closer such a high priority?

It’s easy to understand from the team’s perspective. Last year the Twins had 52 save opportunities and the back of the bullpen managed to hold on to just 62% of those. That was the lowest save conversion rate for the franchise since the 1997 season team converted on just 61% of their save chances.

This was clearly a black-eye for the organization that had prided itself on securing games for most of the century. After all, since 2002, they have recorded more saves than Billy Graham.

But here’s the thing: those 52 save opportunities were also tied with the Boston Red Sox for fourth fewest in baseball. Boston’s lack of save opportunities only stems from having baseball’s most potent offense which averaged 5.4 runs per game. The Twins, unlike their Red Sox counterparts, were not afforded the same luxury of running away with ballgames considering they average the second fewest runs per game in the American League (3.82 runs per game) and the fifth-lowest in all of baseball.

And therein lies the problem.

The front office is seemingly trying to stop the bleeding where the team blew a handful of save opportunities when the real problem is that the majority of their games played did not require a closer because the bats were flaccid or the starting rotation failed to keep the game within reach (they allowed 4.96 runs per game, second-most in baseball) or both. Focusing on a closer now would be like putting a tourniquet on a paper cut on one leg while the other leg is lopped off at the knee and still hemorrhaging blood everywhere.

Yes, the anticipated return of Denard Span, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer along with the addition of Ryan Doumit should assist in a modest uptick in offensive production. Yes, the acquisition of Jamey Carroll should hopefully fortify the middle infield and support the pitching staff. And perhaps the future addition of someone like Chris Capuano, who the Twins have expressed interest in, will help solidify the rotation as Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn all regain their health. Still, is all of that enough to raise the runs scored and shave off the pitching staff’s runs allowed – at least to the point where you may be creating more save opportunities?

To me, that is not enough to do so. As Joe Christensen wrote about earlier this week, the team is growing perilously close to that $100 million mark that was estimated to be the 2012 budget capacity. At an approximate $87.7 million now, sinking $7 million or more for the going rate of an “experienced closer” would leave the team front office with $6 million or less to address the other outstanding issues (starting pitcher, outfielder, bullpen depth, etc).

Building a strong bullpen is one thing; doing so by throwing money at a closer with an extensive resume is the wrong way. Rather than sink money into an experience closer, the Twins should be taking a cue from the Tampa Bay Rays, who have been very successful at compiling a relief staff on a shoestring budget. They coaxed some of the best work out of retreads in Troy Percival and Kyle Farnsworth while landing Rafael Soriano from Atlanta in a severely lopsided trade in their favor.

Ultimately, the Twins will need someone to close but they do not need to land a budget-buster to do so. Instead of trying to reel in the big closer fish, the Twins should be targeting the likes of Takashi Saito, who pitched well in the set-up role for the Brewers after closing for the Dodgers from 2006-2008. Or taking a look Joel Zumaya who is scheduled to pitch for scouts in mid-December and find out if he can be this year’s Joaquin Benoit, a recovering power arm in need of a one-year deal. Heck, find out if the Rangers will part with Koji Uehara, who had a brief stint as a closer in Baltimore and has the highest K/BB ratio (10.00) among relievers since 2009 as well as the second highest strikeout percentage (33.6%), now that Texas has signed Joe Nathan.

Instead of allocating a high percentage of what’s left of the 2012 budget on a player whose contributions may be minimal, the Twins should rededicate that funding towards the starting rotation, grabbing an outfielder and buttressing the rest of the bullpen while spending what is leftover on a closer.

In the end, if you don’t have save opportunities, what good is a closer anyway?

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