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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.