Joe Nathan & Matt Capps Enter Potential Walk Years

If there’s one downside to having a deep bullpen, it’s that retaining your relievers becomes expensive. Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Brian Fuentes and Jon Rauch all left the Twins for lucrative free agent deals this winter, signing for a combined $39 million in guaranteed money as free agents.

It could happen again after the 2011 season, since Matt Capps is set to hit free agency and Joe Nathan could join him on the open market. Though the Twins have a $12.5 million option for Nathan ($2 million buyout), he’s returning from Tommy John surgery and unless he’s healthy it would be hard to justify an eight-figure commitment regardless of Nathan’s history and popularity in Minneapolis.

The Twins have already committed $56.75 million to five players for 2012 – Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Carl Pavano, Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn. Filling out the remaining 20 roster spots with $50 million or so will be a challenge, especially when you consider that it could cost a total of $14 million to retain Francisco Liriano and Delmon Young as they enter their final seasons of arbitration eligibility.

Because the Twins work within a budget and Nathan and Capps are expensive, the front office will likely ask itself what the bullpen would look like without its two most accomplished arms. Jose Mijares and Dusty Hughes could provide manager Ron Gardenhire with options from the left side in the absence of Fuentes, Ron Mahay and Randy Flores, who all left as free agents this offseason.

Carlos Gutierrez, the Twins’ 2008 first rounder, should be ready for a bullpen role by 2012 and right-handed prospects Billy Bullock and Anthony Slama could join him. Alex Burnett, still just 23, was a key contributor for the Twins in the first half of 2010 and Jeff Manship reduced his walks last year.

Though it would be impossible to anticipate the Twins’ 2012 ‘pen in much more detail, they do have other pitchers who could emerge in the coming season. And as the White Sox showed a year ago, college pitchers can become effective MLB relievers within months of being drafted.

But none of the Twins’ alternatives to Nathan and Capps have saved a single Major League game and the Twins do appear to value saves. They signed Nathan to the fifth-biggest deal (in terms of average annual value) that a reliever has ever signed, though they were operating on a modest payroll at the time. It’s also worth noting that they paid Capps roughly twice as much as Rauch obtained, though Capps’ non-save numbers were only slightly better than Rauch’s (Capps: $7.15 million, 42 saves, 7.27 K/9, 2.10 BB/9, 49.8 GB%, 2.47 ERA, 3.23 FIP, 3.45 xFIP vs. Rauch: $3.75 million, 21 saves, 7.18 K/9, 2.18 BB/8, 37.7 GB%, 3.12 ERA, 2.94 FIP, 4.18 xFIP).

If Nathan returns to form in 2011, I find it hard to imagine the Twins letting him walk. GM Bill Smith has exercised team options for players such as Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer, so he could choose to do the same with Nathan instead of bidding for him against other teams. The net $10.5 million cost of bringing Nathan back would likely be palatable for the Twins if their longtime closer has a vintage season. Though they have limited payroll flexibility, the shortage of legitimate in-house alternatives could be enough to extend Nathan’s stint with the team.

If Nathan struggles or encounters a setback, I expect the Twins to look to re-sign Capps or spend on one of the many top relievers who project to be on the market because bullpens – even good ones – can’t sustain mass losses every year without deteriorating significantly.

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16 Responses to “Joe Nathan & Matt Capps Enter Potential Walk Years”

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  1. adohaj says:

    This is minor but don’t they also have 3 million tied up in Denard Span?

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    • Luke in MN says:

      Nishioka also for another 3 million. There’s the 2 million dollar buyout for Nathan, so it’s 65 million committed, about 80 million if you add Liriano and Delmon, 90 if you add Nathan. Slowey and to a lesser extent Casilla will earn a few millions in arb 2 years, although they may trade Slowey at that price if he doesn’t have a spot in the rotation (Pavano, Liriano, Baker, Blackburn, Duensing, and Kyle Gibson are the six other options he’ll likely be competing with). You figure Kubel and Cuddyer walk, since there are good in-house options in the outfield, but I could see one of them back as a DH/OF if they were willing to take a pay cut to stay put.

      So that puts them at 100 million or so, but that’s pretty much your team. Valencia, Mijares, Duensing, Gibson (likely by then), the bench guys (sans Thome), and anyone else who makes the bullpen this year are basically serfs. As usual, there might be room for a strategic free agent here and there, but it’s pretty safe to say the Twins won’t be in on the Pujols bidding.

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      • mike wants wins says:

        No way they let Cuddy walk if he has a decent (not even good) year. Gardy called him the team MVP. Every Twins’ article on the fluff web sites is about how Cuddy is the soul of that team. He’s waaaay overpaid for his production, but I can’t see Gardy letting Smith let him go.

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  2. Andrew Alba says:

    I saw the Twins resigning Capps as a good move because I didn’t see Nathan coming back this year to his old form. What Nathan appears to be doing in spring training is mind blowing. If Nathan continues to throw well this season, I would hope the Twins could get deal Capps late in the year, where he could go to another team to close.

    The Twins hurt themselves last year inking deals with Baker and Blackburn. I really like both of them, but the Twins paid to much. Now there is talk about trading Slowey? As much as I like the other two pitchers because they eat innings, Slowey gives you more for your dollar doesn’t he? I am a Baker fan, but if we look at the team objectively, he is better trade bait isn’t he?

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    • Luke in MN says:

      The deals for Baker and Blackburn hurt only on flexibility, not money. Blackburn makes 13 million in total over the next 3 years, Baker makes 11 million total over the next 2 and then has a team option. Slowey meanwhile makes 2.7 this year, which will be followed by his Arb 2 and 3 years. Assuming they all pitch to their histories, all three will be about as equally underpaid as the typical arb-eligible pitchers is. I think Baker, Slowey, Blackburn is both the order of ability and the order of value as a trade asset.

      And just to be clear, I was just speculating on Slowey being traded, I’ve never heard that the team is looking into this. Although he does seem to be the odd man out of the rotation right now.

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  3. Sox27 says:

    What’s the latest status update on Nathan? Is he throwing pain free and is his arm strength getting close to 100%. The all Red Sox/Yankees programming of ESPN and MLB network haven’t given much of an update.

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  4. Sox27 says:

    What about Nishioka, what are the initial reactions?

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    • Luke in MN says:

      I don’t think anything too surprising either way yet. His defense has been good and he’s going to be the 2nd baseman and probably the backup shortstop. Of course he gets heaps of Japanese media coverage.

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  5. mike wants wins says:

    We all know that Smith will trade Slowey for bullpen arms. Pretty soon, they’ll have more minor league relievers than any other team in history. They won’t have a SS, and they may be short starting pitchers, but they’ll be FLUSH in relief pitcher prospects. Not that that is a good thing.

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    • Not David says:

      That about sums it up.

      Oh yeah, and they’re working on ridding themselves of any and all starting pitchers that are even remotely capable of striking somebody out.

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  6. Barkey Walker says:

    The Twins management is paranoid about closing and relief pitching, it is one of his blind spots (that and outfield defense). Last season he had a good closer, only one decent outfielder, and no first baseman… and he traded for two closers with lots of saves.

    No way they don’t sign an experienced closer this offseason.

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  7. Sox27 says:

    Can a Twins fan who understands their organization thought process answer one question for me; given the perceived interest in moving Liriano this offseason coupled with bullpen departures, do you think they would look at the idea of moving Morneau this offseason to address a couple areas of need? This would then put an end to that ageless discussion of “When will Joe Mauer move from catcher?” Obviously, Mauer’s value behind the plate is immense and his overall power numbers don’t make him as valuable at 1B and DH full-time, can any of you see this shaking out or will there be other alternatives explored in your eyes?

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  8. Peter S says:

    Mauer’s not moving from catcher any time soon. No hint of it. And really at what they’re paying him, he needs to catch.

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