With the starting rotation pretty much set as the Twins look towards Spring Training, their biggest question has to be, “Who will be in our bullpen?”. The bullpen will have a different look in 2011 as the Twins let 4 key pitchers test the free agent market. Jesse Crain, along with Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes, was probably the biggest name to decline arbitration and test the free agent market. So far, it has been kind to them. Crain signed a 13 million dollar, three year deal with the Chicago White Sox and Guerrier signed a 12 million dollar, three year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
If you ask me, I would have given Crain 13 million over three years without hesitation. He was one of the hottest relief pitchers during the second half of the season as he had a 2.14 ERA with 15 walks and 33 strike outs in 33 2/3 innings pitched. The White Sox got a heck of a pitcher in Crain and I will continue to be a fan of Jesse, even though he will be playing for our biggest rival.
With those four guys gone, the Twins will almost have an open audition for the bullpen this Spring in Ft. Myers. Looking at a list of potential bullpen arms, I have Joe Nathan, Pat Neshek, Matt Capps and Jose Mijares as locks to be in the bullpen. This leaves three more open spots to complete the pitching staff. The three players that I think will get the last three spots in the Twins bullpen are Alex Burnett, Glen Perkins and Anthony Slama.
RHP Alex Burnett is at the top of my list of possible candidates to earn a spot in the bullpen. He made his Major League debut at the beginning of the 2010 season and had an okay season. He went 2-2 with a 5.29 ERA with 33 walks and 37 strike outs in 47.2 IP. That 5.29 ERA may worry some people, but he had a 3.60 ERA at the All-Star break. So he definitely showed signs of being a good relief pitcher. He would likely be the long relief pitcher when needed.
Another interesting candidate is Glen Perkins, a left hander who has been with the Twins since being drafted in the 1st round of the 2004 draft. He was originally drafted with the thought of being a starting pitcher. In 2008 he went 12-4 with a 4.41 ERA, but then was shifted to the bullpen and he hasn’t been the same since. He was a call-up during the summer last season, but that didn’t go too well. He had a very rough August giving up ten earned runs in ten innings. He was able to rebound in September by allowing four earned runs in 11 innings and earning his only win of the 2010 season. I expect Perkins to get a spot in the bullpen, possibly as a long-relief/emergency starter roll.
Unless the Twins sign a veteran bullpen arm, I believe Anthony Slama will be the last pitcher to round out the bullpen. Slama made his MLB debut in the middle of July last season. It didn’t last very long as he only pitched 4.1 innings before being sent back to Triple-A Rochester. Triple-A is where he has succeeded greatly the last two seasons. He has notched 21 of his 85 career minor league saves at the Triple-A level. After watching his brief stint at the major league level, some people may wonder if he is ready. You have to also ask, “Did he have enough time to prove himself?”. The answer to that is no. He only appeared in five games. He didn’t really get the chance to try and turn himself around. So hopefully having a very small bite of major league experience, he can go into Spring Training with the knowledge of what it will take. He is most suited for the 6th or 7th inning role.
Despite the competition for the three remaining spots, the biggest question to me is, “How will Joe Nathan bounce back from Tommy John surgery?”. He is on schedule to be ready for the 2011 season, but will likely start in the set-up role. I fully expect Matt Capps to be the Opening Day closer for the Twins. But anything can happen between now and Opening Day, so it will be very interesting to see how the bullpen turns out come April 1st in Toronto.